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A 30-day comment sabbatical at TheMennonite.org

6.14. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 2,468 Times read

Hannah Heinzekehr is the Executive Director for The Mennonite, Inc. 

There’s a saying that gets bandied around on the Internet a lot these days: “Never read the comments.” From bloggers to journalists to general social media users, this phrase is turning up more and more in the digital media feeds I see these days. In fact, in a recent blog post on this very website, Malinda Berry identified a phenomenon she refers to as “Internet Stage Fright.” Malinda describes ISF this way: “my body’s psychospiritual response to what I fear will meet my words, thoughts, opinions, concerns and fragile hopes for meaningful connection that will transform the seemingly interminable conflict that has a hold on MC USA. Like I said, I seize up. I can’t get my words out. I run and hide. I dismiss the belief that anything I or anyone else can say will bring peace when there is no peace.”

And Malinda is not alone. Over the course of the last month alone, as I’ve approached individuals and asked them to write for The Mennonite, I’ve been turned down five times by people of all ideological bends who feel fearful about putting their opinions out there on our site because of the inevitable comment debates that will ensue.

The Mennonite is not the only publication wrestling with how to address Internet comments. Several recent articles in prominent publications, such as The Washington Post and The Guardian, have examined the potential toxic effects of comments, the ways that comments tend to lead people to feel angrier and more resentful of an author, and the ways comment sections end up being spaces where racist, homophobic and sexist statements occur at a much higher incidence than in other online conversation hubs. In fact, large publications, including Popular Science, The Chicago Sun Times, Reuters, Mic.com and many other sites have made the choice to completely disable comments on most if not all articles. Other Christian publications, such as Christianity Today and Sojourners, have done away with comments on some articles or moved comments to a separate field that you have to click through to get to.

The Mennonite is certainly not immune from these realities faced by other publications. Over the course of the last month especially, we have noticed the following trends:

  • Content moderation is taking increasing amounts of staff time. We recently published a new comments policy, adapted from one that Mennonite Church USA staff have been using for several years. However, due to an increased volume of comments recently, it has taken more and more staff time to monitor comments that come through our website. We are a small staff of four people, and comment moderation is only a small part of what we do.
  • Most comments are coming from a small pool of people. Increasingly, comments on most articles are coming from a shrinking pool of people. In fact, in the last month, we estimate that 75 percent of our comments have been generated by five individuals.
  • A lack of constructive conversation. Part of our function is to provide a “forum for diverse Mennonite voices.” Comments have been one space where we hope this conversation between diverse voices can play out. However, increasingly, comments on our articles have devolved into name calling; second-guessing other commenters’ motives or faithfulness, or vitriolic, one-off statements. In addition to providing a forum for diverse voices, our mission is to “help readers glorify God, grow in faith and become agents of healing and hope in our world.” Are our comment sections helping us advance this mission?

Given these realities, we are implementing a 30-day sabbatical from comments on our website, starting tomorrow, June 15. We’re not seeing this as a permanent move but as a time to take a breath and assess where we are. This will also be a time for our staff to step back and assess the ways comments are set up on our website and to think through best practices for comment moderation.

In his recent op ed piece, another TM blogger, Tim Nafziger, critiqued complaints from Mennonite leaders about conversation on social media. Tim emphasized that social media has provided an important platform for communication that is outside of institutional control. There is something inherently liberating about the open and public nature of social media and internet conversation, and we don’t want to lose these elements of free speech at their best. We don’t want this comment sabbatical be seen as a way to shut down hard conversations or avoid conflict. Conflict can be generative, and hard conversations are often some of the richest.

So during this comment sabbatical, we want to be sure to provide other places for you to give feedback to us and for diverse voices to contribute to conversation at TheMennonite.org.

There are several ways you can send us feedback and engage this conversation:

After 30 days, we’ll reassess and report back to you publicly what we’ve heard. How did the lack of comments on our website change the experience? What did we miss? What did we gain? What should online comments look like moving forward?

Thanks for engaging with us as we work at the best ways to live into our purpose online.

The Mennonite, Inc., is currently reviewing its Comments Policy. During this review, commenting on new articles is disabled; readers are encouraged to comment on new articles via The Mennonite’s Facebook page. Comments on older articles can continue to be submitted for review. Comments that were previously approved will still appear on older articles. To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments, and comments don’t appear until approved. Read our full Comments Policy before submitting a comment for approval.