This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Comments are back…with some changes

Hannah Heinzekehr is Executive Director of The Mennonite, Inc. 

A little over 30 days ago, we tried an experiment: We closed comments on our website. At that time, I outlined an extensive list of factors that played into this decision, but they largely boiled down to the fact that it was unclear whether comments were enhancing our ability to talk to each other across the church and whether they were doing more harm than good.

Our staff has used these last 30 days to regroup, to learn more, to solicit feedback and to talk with other media organizations about how they handle comments.

It may come as no surprise that the feedback we received through a survey, via email, on Facebook and in other outlets reflects that people across the denomination are divided pretty evenly in their opinions about whether comments are useful or not.

Reasons expressed in support of bringing back comments included these:

  • A sense that by shutting down comments we were not allowing free speech and turning our stories and blogs into “propaganda rather than discussion”; a general critique that we were being too controlling.
  • Others felt the content at The Mennonite website has been too progressive and that comments provided a space for other voices to be heard that weren’t being adequately expressed elsewhere on the site.
  • A reminder that one of our stated purposes is to serve as a forum for the voices of Mennonite Church USA and a belief that online comments are an important place for discussion to happen.
  • A distrust or dislike of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter for discussion.

Reasons expressed in support of doing away with comments included these:

  • The ability to take an article and an author’s words at face value without having comments color or change the way an article is understood.
  • Concerns about online harassment and comments that disproportionately critiqued or attacked women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals.
  • A sense that comments are not a helpful place for constructive dialogue to occur.
  • Concerns about reading too many comments by the same individuals.

It was interesting for us to note that, for the most part, men supported bringing comments back, while women encouraged us to modify our comment policy or to do away with online comments altogether.

We are not the first publication to wrestle with the role of comments. The collective media wisdom seems to be reaching a consensus that if you want to have a comment section that doesn’t devolve into online shouting matches, you need to moderate your comments.

Our staff also noticed that during this comment sabbatical, individuals were more likely to send us well-thought-out arguments or critiques as letters to the editor or as a blog submission. Often, they took several days to think about what they had read and sent us a carefully written argument. We don’t want to lose this thoughtfulness.

So, where did we end up after all of this feedback and reading? Today, comments are back up online but with some changes.

  • Disqus: We’ve installed a new commenting program on our website. In order to comment on The Mennonite’s website, you’ll need to create an account and log in.
  • Show/Hide Comments Button: You’ll notice that comments won’t automatically appear at the end of every post. Don’t like comments? OK. Don’t click the button. Want to read the discussion? Click and read on.
  • New comment policy: We’ve updated our comment policy to include the following changes.
    • All comments are moderated: We’re treating all comments like letters to the editor, which means that if they don’t fit our policy and advance constructive conversation, they won’t be approved. Comments are only moderated during our office hours, so don’t be surprised if you submit a comment in the evening and it doesn’t appear until the next morning.
    • No more anonymous comments: In order to have your comment approved, your Disqus account will need to include your first and last name or you’ll need to sign your post.
    • Comment limits: Commenters will only be allowed to comment twice per post.
    • Word limit: Comments are limited to 150 words or fewer. Want to write something longer than that? Submit an op ed or an online letter to the editor for consideration.

What does it mean for the church to model a contrast community in our online comments? Let me be clear: What I’m suggesting here is not that we don’t disagree or that we don’t point out or own flaws or offer direct critiques. Passive aggression has a whole other host of issues associated with it (read this post by Malinda Berry for a quick crash course).

But this is a deeply divided time for the church. What then does it mean to engage one another with the awareness that we are each made in God’s image and “one in Christ Jesus”? Do we write a comment because we really hope to engage and understand and offer a new idea or simply because we want to burn something down?

My go-to meditation phrase in these days and weeks has been from Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord.” I’m the first to admit we may not always get things right at The Mennonite, but we’re working on it. And since comments are now live, you can leave your feedback below or send us an e-mail:

Thanks for experimenting with us.

Anabaptist World

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