Joel Spolsky has slammed the glory that is Curbed comments: “They’re proving John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory every day. Pathetic. On a real estate blog. Lockhart Steele, is this what you want Curbed to look like? Really? It’s not fun, freewheeling freedom of expression, yay first amendment!. It’s mostly anonymous hate speech.”
Fair enough; the thread Joel’s referring to ventures into that territory. But I disagree with Joel’s overall point, that blog comments in generaland anonymous comments in particularhave no place. Sure, on Curbed, like any high-traffic blogs, there are trolls. But there are also numerous readers who know more about real estate than any of Curbed’s editors, and the insight they bring to Curbed’s comments on a daily basis make the site a much stronger read. Take one thread from this afternoon: within the first hour after the post went up, several readers have deepened the understanding of the story, and then a building resident jumps in to comment. Are there trolls in the thread? Sure. But see how the community routes around them?
Of course, occasional threads, like the one Joel cited, become lost causes. But those are the exception, not the rule, and the tradeoffs in useful intelligence that come from the comments on other posts makes the occasional trainwreck endurable. (As to the idea that we should all just comment on our own blogs, perhaps that makes sense for readers of a software site, but is patently absurd for local blogs like Curbed. Even Nick Denton finally had to concede that point. And as to Joel’s italicized outrage! that this is all going down on a real estate blog!!!, well, to quote one commenter in that Curbed thread from today, “Real estate is more emotional in NYC than abortion is in Alabama.”)
Still, like anyone in the problogging world, at the Curbed network of sites, we’re thinking about ways to improve the conversation while limiting the noise. The invite-only comments policy at Gawker, where I worked until this month, works well to keep trolls out, but with the tradeoffs that commenters sometimes devolve into pure sycophancy and new commenters aren’t likely to be approved in a fashion so timely that they can add to a conversation before readers move on to the next post. Gothamist’s graying out of anonymous guest commenters is interesting, as is ApartmentTherapy’s concept to literally make the font size smaller for untrusted commenters. (That whole AT post is worth the read.)
There’s also the experience of Brownstoner, a Brooklyn real estate blog, which last summer began requiring registration for all commenters. A few months later, he reversed his decision, and let anonymous users comment anew. Rationale: “Is the increased civility worth the foregone informational exchange and sense of community? On balance, we don’t think it’s worth it.” Something Jon doesn’t mention in this post, but I’d imagine played a role, is this simple truth: there’s nothing to stop trolls from registering to comment, too.
On balance, I think Gawker is closest to having this figured out, but the invite-only policy isn’t all the way there. Tough question with a lot of possible answers. But as we figure them out, I’ll take openness of exchange, with all its potholes, over the alternative.