The Commenting Problem
By Loren Seibold | 8 November 2020 |
Now and then I’ll receive a note from someone who is angry because they made a comment on an article on our Facebook page, and received a “gentle reader” warning from one of our moderators. Our commenting guidelines are clearly posted on our Adventist Today Facebook page, so by now people should know what it means to take part in an AT conversation. But since apparently some people don’t read the guidelines, I thought that I should explain them. I settled on six (more or less) simple principles.
Principle number 1
You don’t have unfettered free speech on our comments page.
We had a person threaten us with a lawsuit after we blocked him for vulgarity and insults and just general unpleasantness. He said he was suing us not only to let him comment without restriction, but that we would have to allow him to write an article to answer every article we wrote!
We didn’t tremble in our sensible Adventist shoes. We just told him to go away.
We often hear people say, “I have the right to free speech, to say whatever I want, to whomever I want to.” No, you don’t. Let us be very clear: you are welcome to disagree with an Adventist Today author, or with another commenter. But we have the right to ensure that conversation is civil and courteous.
One simple example: you don’t get to use vulgarity on our page. And yes, we get comments defending the church with obscenities. Nor do you get to insult people. You can’t, in our space, call people heretics, sinners, or fools. You can say what you disagree with, with regard to our church or its leaders or our authors, but you don’t get to make hateful statements about any of them.
Principle number 2
We want to keep people involved in the Adventist conversation, not push them away.
This is tremendously hard for some people to understand. They see the world in black and white, and if you’re an Adventist, or on a page that uses the word Adventist in its name, and you disagree with anything they believe, they have the solution: you’re not welcome in our church. Get out of here, you’re ruining the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
This is a red line for us. You don’t get to threaten people on our page with either temporal or eternal retaliation. You don’t get to judge others’ fitness for salvation, which action is reserved for God alone. You can’t condemn people to eternal annihilation on our page. You can’t tell them they don’t belong in the church. You cannot tell them they are tools of Satan (a favorite) or committing the sin of Korah, Dathan and Abiram (a favorite a few years ago which has—thank the Lord—faded somewhat).
A few Adventist-connected websites allow this—encourage it, even. We do not.
Our goal is a “broad church,” where people of good will can respectfully and thoughtfully discuss, learn, and differ. If you are neither respectful nor thoughtful nor tolerant of differences, there are other Adventist-connected websites where condemnation and exclusion is encouraged. Go there.
Again: you can say “I see it completely different from the author,” and tell everyone why. We’re happy to receive that. Just be very careful what you say afterwards, what judgments you make or imply about others.
Principle number 3
We welcome you to disagree with us, but you can’t be unkind and discourteous
Yes, I’m getting a little repetitious here, because some people just don’t get this. If you’re going to be part of our conversation, you have to know how to converse courteously and respectfully. You are welcome to disagree, but you can’t be disagreeable, no matter how much more “right” you are than the author or other commenters.
Adventist Today is an independent website. Though we are generally progressive in our views, we are committed to Seventh-day Adventism, and we’re proud to include people who hold many variations of our common faith. Sometimes people accuse us of keeping the liberal comments and deleting all conservative comments. That’s absolutely not true. When comments get deleted, along the whole of the spectrum, it’s because they’re angry, judgmental, hurtful, and insulting.
To say, “I see it differently” and then succinctly tell us how, is something we welcome. The moment you add, “And that’s why you’re going to be lost, you scion of Satan, and why you’ll burn in the lake of fire,”—or any variation thereof—you’re outta here. Nor can you say, “The Adventist Church is nothing but the most horrible people,” or “So-and-so in the General Conference is a moron.”
Common sense, people. “Do unto others,” and all that.
Principle number 4
You don’t get to dominate our conversation, no matter how much smarter you are than the rest of us.
I have seen people post the 8,000-character Facebook maximum in a series of 10 comments until they’ve put up an entire essay. That’s not what comments are for. Comments are for interactive conversation. 80,000 characters is not a conversation: it’s a lecture. The same goes for giving us a whole chapter from a book by Ellen White.
The best comments are short and to the point. They say what needs to be said in a sentence or five, and leave it at that. Interestingly, it is generally those who think they need to save the church from us who contribute the longest, least intelligible comments. Those are rarely read.
Nor do you get to use our Facebook page to send people elsewhere. If your comment says, “What is happening here is awful—come over to my site, at this link” it will generally be removed.
“Yeah, but what about my free speech?” See principle number 1, above.
Principle number 5
Our comments are for conversation about our articles, not for anything you want to talk about.
You can’t use our site to express your opinion about something that has nothing to do with what the author wrote about. Yes, in your mind it may seem to be connected—but we can usually tell if it connects for our readers, and we may decide we don’t need it cluttering up the conversation.
That’s why you have your own website or Facebook page. Talk all you want there, about anything you want. Even about us, if you want to. But we have no obligation to host you at AdventistToday.org.
Principle number 6
A warning about the appropriateness of your comment is not an invitation to argue with us, but a request to comment differently.
We’ve been doing this for years. You’re not the first one to tell us that we don’t know how to run a social media comments section. You’re not the first to say that we’re not true Seventh-day Adventists like you are. You’re not the first to inform us that, unlike all those who’ve gone before, you know the truth and everyone should see how much smarter you are than they are.
Most of the time we give people a courteous warning. That’s because we want you to remain in the conversation! But sometimes people take it as an insult, and argue with us. That doesn’t work.
By the way, if your comment is sufficiently bad (I won’t give examples here, because I would offend a good number of you if you saw some of the stuff we’ve had to remove) we reserve the right to block you from commenting with us at all.
You may not always agree with our moderators. We’re not infallible. But we do know this territory pretty well by now. Rather than making a fuss, just reword your comment to conform to our guidelines.
At their best, comments give the writer some helpful feedback, and add new thoughts for the readers. That is, after all, what conversation is meant to do. Yet so very many opinionated people don’t understand the concept of polite, respectful conversation, especially in settings where they don’t have to look their opponent in the eye. Which is why comments sections can devolve into a trading of insults, and why most serious journalistic sites have dropped them entirely.
Adventist Today thinks good conversation is value-added. But not every comment adds value. The comments, though they’re written by our visitors and not us, do attract or repel visitors: if we get too many comments that are unkind and judgmental, people view us as a hostile place and don’t want to read Adventist Today. We won’t let that happen.
Let me say again, for the sixth or seventh time: we welcome disagreement in thoughtful and polite ways. We don’t welcome anger, insults, condemnation, or judgement, of individuals or the church, or of Adventist Today or its authors. If that’s your native language, go away
So “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter”: if you don’t like a broad and courteous discussion, without condemnation and insults, then go elsewhere. Do come here if you enjoy a thoughtful discussion, even when others disagree with you.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.