We are reopening comments today. As we discuss in more detail below, we have made some changes that we hope will allow the comments section to operate once more as it has in better times in the past: as a place for members of the NC community to debate important topics, question the validity of information and analysis, add to or as needed challenge posts, and for Links and Water Cooler, bring up research or news stories that have escaped our view.
Rest assured that we missed our discussions as much as you did. The overwhelming majority of those who wrote us privately were supportive, even if they also regretted the decision, since they understood how the physical and emotional wear and tear of managing the comments section had increased greatly over the last two years (and it was already higher than most readers appreciated). Some also offered suggestions. For instance, reader Greg G wrote:
Maybe just totally embrace the need for a comment time-out and don’t fret it. Go with the “circuit breaker” analogy they use in the financial markets (and electrical systems), give everyone a chance to cool down. Just make it part of the business now, throw the breaker, a standard notice is displayed, and let it sit for a day or two. Ban without hesitation and just feel good.
It’s not you. It’s us.
As you all know, we kept the comments section closed longer than we would have liked. That’s because we saw a need for fundamental changes and we had to spend some time thinking about what if anything we could do. Without going into specifics, Lambert and I have looked into many options over the years, as well as watched other sites and mainstream media organizations experiment, and have also consulted with experts. There really isn’t an alternative to having individuals who are well-schooled in both the subject matters at hand and in debate/argumentation intervention if we wish to keep the discussions on a high level. 1
NC has become a case study for mainstream media organization because we show that an engaged audience is due not just to the high caliber of our readers but also to the considerable effort we put into moderation and managing comments generally. Because this effort takes place “behind the scenes,” people can’t see it, and so can’t recognize the resources it takes (were it not for our harping on it from time to time). However, that people don’t realize that comment moderation is work is in some ways a testament to our success; a good performance should look effortless despite all the rehearsing and backstage support.
Nevertheless, keeping the comments at their former high level has taken vastly more in time and energy than it used to. Even after engaging Outis, it felt like we were waging a losing battle.
How Comments Went Into the Ditch in August
Even though the comments section has had its ups and downs, we saw two sorts of changes happen. First, starting with 2016 election cycle, and intensifying after Trump’s victory, the number of comments rose significantly and stayed high, accompanied by a marked decrease in average quality. Some of this may have been due to newbies not understanding that NC is not a chat room, not Reddit, and not Facebook, and some of it was the result of successful emotional gaslighting by Trump, the Democrats, and the media, all of whom profited in various ways from getting and keeping people upset and angry. The proportion of heated, heavy on opinion, low on information and analysis comments rose greatly.
While the site has also had long periods where the commentariat plays well together, in terms of both stimulating conversations and good exchanges of information, punctuated by short periods where lots of people seem to have gotten out of the wrong side of bed, August was a protracted period of low-value arguments on hot news topics which were also wide of what NC is supposed to be about, which is finance and economics.
Over NC’s history, one particularly troubling symptom of such periods of disequilibrium is that well-established, well-liked commenters go irretrievably off the rails. This happened in August as well, to our great distress (rather like going to dinner with an old friend and seeing a toad jump out of their mouth).
Changes We Are Making To Improve the Comments Section
New site admin. Please welcome Jules Dickson, who will be joining Outis in overseeing comments on a daily basis. I’ve known Jules for over 30 years, back from my first study at McKinsey. Jules took on a role at McKinsey that regularly involved telling associates and managers that they hadn’t thought through a problem well. Later, Jules was one of the content producers at a popular entertainment site where, for reasons too complicated to discuss here, flame wars regularly broke out among the subscribers. Jules was hands-on in tamping down the disputes. Jules will probably not comment in the first couple of weeks while getting a feel for the personalities and the subject matter, but expect to see Jules as an active participant in due course.
Updated comments policies. Please read them!
Modifications to comments software. We’ve made some changes to the comments template as well as to the software in our backstage. The changes to the front-end give short reminders of the behavior we would like to see, and will hopefully lead to an improved experience for everyone.
Comments holidays. I was on vacation last week, and not having to check comments (which takes 1-2 hours of my day) meant I had something approaching a real break (I still have hundreds of e-mails daily). I know Lambert and Outis also appreciated the respite from the work of comments oversight even though they missed reader interaction.
We will have a comments holiday from Christmas to New Years’ Day, inclusive, and one week in summer going forward.
Again, welcome back, and I look forward towards more stimulating conversations, updates, and corrections and additions to posts!
1 We’ve had many readers over the years and during our recent time out volunteer to help moderate comments. There are two reasons we can’t take advantage of all these kind offers. First, making comments and moderating/intervening in comments are two different skill sets. Even an excellent commenter is not necessarily the right person for the task. Second, WordPress requires that someone who moderates comments must also be a site administrator. That gives them the power to wreak havoc with the site, either by accident or design. So we can have only trusted parties that we have known well for a long time in real life play this role.