On the Toxicity of Online Commentary and the Future

Since I’ve returned to blogging a bit more regularly, I’ve been struggling with the role of comments on a blog or news site. When I first began blogging, I thought they were a natural extension of an activity I love, competitive debate, a place where people can challenge and question each other’s ideas, perhaps even find some truth or compromise. That idealistic notion certainly didn’t last long, and for ten years of writing at this site, the most unpleasant task has been dealing with comments, whether they come in the form of spam or personal attacks against me and others. And for the one comment that increases understanding of an issue, there seem to be 99 that offer little insight and become excuses for extending personal battles.

And it’s certainly not just here. A quick perusal of almost any site, amateur blog, or professional news organization, reveals the same toxic cloud of personal attacks and repeated arguments that pass by each other. There’s very little marketplace of ideas discussion taking place. Instead, there are mean, crude, poorly-written comments that give undue power to people with the time and energy to bully other commenters.

And I don’t like the anger that I feel and express when I engage in these flame wars. I don’t want to waste any mental or emotional energy fighting these fights any longer.

And anonymity gives the comments unwarranted power. If you make the mistake of commenting and writing under your own name, you’ll almost assuredly come under personal attack, about your profession, your family, and/or your personal life. Those who hide their personal attacks under pseudonyms always win in those exchanges, because they have nothing lose, while the named person puts her reputation online.

I’d love to have debates on issues. I still hold onto this somewhat naïve belief that we can learn from each other when we battle over ideas, even fiercely, but how often does that really happen online or elsewhere anymore?

The truth is that I probably want to keep blogging for some time, but I don’t want waste any more time moderating comments or engaging in debates on them. So for now, just on my posts, comments will be closed. The time I don’t spend engaging there will be better spent writing, on this site and on other projects. This will be the last of my posts open to comments. Enjoy.

Other writers here are welcome to keep their comments active if they enjoy the give and take that happens or if they have more faith in the marketplace.

If closing comments keeps you from reading, there are a lot of other great sites to read. If closing comments makes you angry, feel free to launch a personal attack.

Just not here. J

Update: This thread certainly proves that I made the right choice for myself. I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that I had to moderate a thread about the problems of moderating comments.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • Don,
    I always enjoy your blogs. Thanks.
    I too enjoy the give and take of honest discussions. Reading diverse opinions is stimulating
    and some off-the-wall comments just amaze me with so little facts to back them up. Take care and keep on blogging.

  • My solution would be to just make people use their Facebook account to log in and then they cannot be anonymous and block people who are toxic. If people cannot comment because of fefear of attack or because of personal reputation then create the ability to moderate comments that are submitted anonymously.

  • “I’d love to have debates on issues. I still hold onto this somewhat naïve belief that we can learn from each other when we battle over ideas, even fiercely, but how often does that really happen online or elsewhere anymore?”

    Then why did you choose to attack me in the Bedwetting post, instead of debating the issue of genocide? I came into that post with good intentions asking you clarify your ambiguous and unsourced use of the term “genocide” in reference to the situation in Syria.

    As t your decision to close off comments from your posts, that’s your business. Just don’t use me as a whipping post.

    • JC, you didn’t want to debate the topic of genocide. Your comment was an insinuation that Pogie was lying about it. And when Norma came in with links to make the point, you attacked her for answering before Pogreba did, and dismissed her because it wasn’t the ‘event’ you wanted.

      If we’re gonna all puff with thick skins here, let’s at least be sympathetic to reality.

      • 1) You don’t have the ability to read my mind, or to know my motive, so quit pretending you do.

        2) Norma didn’t provide any links.

        3) I wasn’t interested in what Norma thought, but was interested in what Don’s characterization of “genocide” in Syria was. It’s actually a very good topic for debate with many different views that has huge implications for foreign policy.

        4) I never attacked Norma, though Don did his best to insinuate it through the comments he inserted in my moderated comments.

        There’s some “reality” for you.

        • I didn’t “insinuate” that you attacked Norma or me. I moderated comments that were personal attacks. That you hide your vitriolic personal attacks under a pseudonym is a reflection of the quality of your commentary.

          As I’ve said before, roughly 1,432 times, you’re welcome to comment if you can stop making personal attacks under a false name. And 1,432 times you’ve proven you’re incapable of it.

          • You sure go to long lengths defending your actions, when all you had to do for my original comment (which was not in any form a “vitriolic personal attack”) was to say “no comment” or just ignore it (and me).

            You can claim that what you moderated was “vitriolic personal comments” but the only ones who know the truth are those who read them before you moderated the content out, and replace what I said with your “insinuations” — because that is all they are, is insinuations.

            • Seriously, get some help. I can’t understand why someone posting under a pseudonym is so worked up about whether a moderated comment was a personal attack or not. It was.

              And if it wasn’t, it is still up to me to decide.

              The fixation you are demonstrating here is altogether troubling. Can you not understand how crazy your behavior must seem?

              Given your history, behavior, and penchant for outing anonymous authors by stalking and then posting their Facebook pages, it’s of concern that you can’t let this go and just walk away.

  • JC has a good point. Don can ‘dish it out”, often in a vicious petty way, but can’t “take it” when someone questions him in even the slightest way. Even James Conner noted that at times Don’s battles can stink-up the blogosphere.

    It’s a lot easier to throw bombs at people when you don’t have to listen to well earned criticism from your readers.

    • “It’s a lot easier to throw bombs at people when you don’t have to listen to well earned criticism from your readers.”

      The irony of that comment is disappointing.

    • I said one thread was stinking-up the blogosphere. Don’s management of comments has featured a high tolerance of trash-talking. He’s become fed up with the trolling and character assassination and off topic comments, and I don’t blame him. Some of the comments have been the functional equivalent of coming into a person’s house and defecating on his carpet and urinating on his guests. When that happens, it’s time to throw everyone out, call the carpet cleaners, and lock the door.

      I formally closed comments on Flathead Memo a year ago. My readership continues to grow.

  • There’s a direct correlation between blogs who close comments and where they stand politically. I read several right minded sites and have seldom seen a no comment policy or any concerns of anonymity.

    Left blogs restrict speech.

    • A man’s blog is his home. He can — and should — set limits on what his guests can do. If those guests don’t behave, he can —and should — give them the bum’s rush. That doesn’t restrict free speech. All those who are denied commenting privileges have the right to register a domain, set up their own website, and pontificate and fulminate to their hearts’ content.

  • “If you make the mistake of commenting and writing under your own name, you’ll almost assuredly come under personal attack, about your profession, your family, and/or your personal life.”

    Maybe you find this to be true, but not everyone has this problem.

    Comments on my site are always open. I feel most don’t like to comment because they know they couldn’t keep up with me.

    That’s fine.

  • This will be my one and only comment on Don’s “Toxicity of Online Commentary” post. I find it disheartening when blog comments center more on personalities than issues. I suppose some people out there enjoy the flame wars but I do not, and I believe most of the thoughtful blog readers find them petty and boring.

    I’m used to getting attacked from the right and don’t mind getting into measured battles with the conservative element, although I have no patience for the ranting, incoherent morons who occasionally show up at Intelligent Discontent.

    The assaults from the left I find more disconcerting. I’ve always figured that we lefties are in this together and we know who our enemy is. I guess I’m wrong.

    I can’t speak for Don but I assume he feels the same way, and I respect his decision to no longer accept comments on his posts. I imagine it’s a form of anger management. On the inconsistent posting that I do, I’ll continue to take comments, at least for the foreseeable future.

      • I don’t know that I have ever had to moderate one of your comments, Swede, so I hope you’ll continue to comment on the posts from other authors here. As for me, it will be nice to be able to write a post without someone attacking my real career within 24 hours of the post going up.

  • I had a couple of years ago to be more civil and keep asking the Questions pertinent to the posts, But the other side of the Argument…… well once it goes down that road there isn’t any coming back. I try and stay above the fray. but your’e right, the anonymous posters have always been a problem.

    You can offer proof, share links, and it won’t be enough, when the other side doesn’t listen.

    My belief is you have to get a moderator Don. Someone who doesn’t post stories. but mostly shares your vision. Cowgirl did that and the vitriol left, looks to me that she also picked up readers and more importantly better commenting…. Just a thought for the future, the2016 campaign is rapidly approaching.

  • In the glory days of online discussion forums had moderators that weren’t primarily content producers. Their function was to keep the conversation civil and productive by setting aside time to encourage people to express their views in constructive ways, and identify and coach trolls, and finally, ban them (or rather, their email addresses).

    There are sites on the net that still do this to some extent, and I appreciate reading both the original posts and comments. I’m sad that you’re closing off comments, but understand why.

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