We begin with this:
In recent weeks, I have experienced increasing discomfort over the zeitgeist and tone in the comments section. I’m sure it’s a combination of the lingering pandemic, the political environment, and the Himalayan Mountain Range of uncertainties about what the rest of this lousy year holds. But the comments section was the very earliest engineering creation here on Slope (being custom made), and it has been the centerpiece of the site for years.
Remember back in mid-March, when the nation was told to tough it out and “slow the spread” by shutting down for, gasp, a full two weeks? Well, fittingly enough, April Fool’s Day came anyway, with no change in the lockdown, and we’ve been in this unprecedented altered state ever since.
Well over half a year into this Covid crisis, people are starting to lose their minds. And, as some of you know, I have a long, long history with online communities, predating 99.9999% of anyone online today. My existence as an online creature goes back to 1981, when I hung out on CompuServe as Blue Knight. I haven’t left since.
As such, I tend to have a pretty good sense as to the nature and timbre of communities, even though I spend very, very little time there. Thus, as mentioned earlier, I felt a disturbance in the force, and as I’ve learned from one particularly malignant example (who, in God’s full wisdom, was struck dead early in life and thus vanished from my radar), would-be trolls and erstwhile nuisances can be poisonous.
I finally decided to go to the group that matters most to me, which is my beloved paying members. All of ’em, from Bronze on up. And I wrote a heartfelt post called Is Silence Golden, in which I offered this question to them:
Should participation in the comments section be restricted to only paying members? (In other words, free accounts would be permitted to read them, but that’s it. They couldn’t write any, and they couldn’t even up or down vote on them).
A portion of my thinking went on to say:
I know that doing this would damage the popularity and participation on the site. By definition, the quantity of comments would go down dramatically. But since I don’t even run ads, I frankly don’t care that much what my traffic is. And I could do without all this nonsense.
The responses flooded in. Keep in mind, for premium posts, I might get, oh, four or five comments typically. This time, the comment count ran into the triple digits. Some people wrote me lengthy private emails with their own thoughts on the matter. I was sincerely touched by the amount of time and thought that paying Slopers put into their responses. It shows how seriously the took the question.
One group of commenters generally had the same thought: “Tim, it’s your site. If this is causing you distress, screw ’em. Only paid members can use comments.“
At the other extreme were folks who said, yeah, I could restrict comments, but I’d suffocate the site. They like a lot of what’s being said by everyone, and doing this means that a few bad apples were permitted the ruin the experience for everyone else. So leave it alone.
Another group suggestions coming up with a new, even cheaper membership level (Aluminum?) which would be required for commenting.
See, the fact is, it really is just a few bad apples causing trouble. Why not ban them? I’m not quite sure. I think I always prefer to try to guide people to better behavior rather than just eliminate them. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some people are committed to being jerks.
During the course of all this back-and-forth and discussion, an idea started to gel with me which seemed to strike a happy balance, and that is what I’m here to announce today.
I hereby give unto you………….a new checkbox:
Its function is simple: check it, and only comments from paying members will be visible. That’s it. If it isn’t checked (which is the default behavior), it’s just like it’s always been.
With that one action, you will be able to eliminate almost all the the chatter, clamor, silly links, images, and other nonsense that gets slathered all over the place. This is not to say that paying members are saints. Some of them might post stuff that bugs you, too. But my intuition is that virtually all of the annoying stuff simply won’t exist anymore for you.
I will hasten to add that it will also eliminate plenty of stuff you might be interested in. The proverbial “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” come to mind. But, since my incessant pleas to click Ignore for anyone bothersome isn’t really sticking, this is much more of a sledgehammer approach that I think will be of aid to many readers.
So, once again I have dedicated time and engineering resources to something which generates absolutely no revenue whatsoever. However, I am hopeful it will create a better experience for those here. Everyone.
I want to extend my appreciation again to the paying members, not only since they are the one and only reason this site goes on from day to day, but also because they actively participated in this important conversation. I would also say that non-paying members owe the premium folks a debt of gratitude, since they convinced me not to simply drop the portcullis on the entire comments section but instead leave it open to all.
The bottom line: Free Speech Reigns on Slope. I have simply given you a choice to see a lot less of it, should you so desire.