Ethics Dunce: Above The Law


The legal news, commentary and gossip site Above the Law—Ethics Alarms uses it a s a source for legal ethics issues from time to time, usually to disagree with its writers—has announced that it is banning comments on the site. This has become an increasing trend on-line. The argument for doing this is always the same, with variations: they don’t add value, they too often are vulgar or abusive, they just aren’t as good as the used to be. Here’s ATL today:

“Today the comments are not what they once were. Although occasionally insightful or funny, ATL comments nowadays are generally fewer in number, not very substantive (often just inside jokes among the commentariat), yet still often offensive. They also represent a very small percentage of our total traffic (as we can tell because of the click required to access them)”

The site also comforts itself that increasingly “everybody does it”:

“What we do know is that the decline in comment quality is not unique to ATL. As noted by Wired, NiemanLab, and Digiday, numerous websites have eliminated their comments sections in recent years, largely because they felt that the comments were not adding sufficient value and that discussion had migrated to social media.”

Yes, I’ve noticed all that high-quality, nuanced commentary on Twitter.

What’s going on here?

Laziness and arrogance, that’s what. Maintaining a substantive, valuable forum in which articulate and thoughtful readers can make their own positions and critiques known and, in turn, be critiqued and challenged by other readers—and the host— takes a lot of attention, consideration, and the consistent application of standards. Above The Law just doesn’t want to put in the effort—or pay for it—, and, as it says, doesn’t see the profit in it, since the comments “also represent a very small percentage” of total traffic.

The latter is true of Ethics Alarms as well, of course. The site is now averaging well over 4000 visits a day, and on a typical day only about 20 individual readers will weigh in.  Nonetheless, those brave and thoughtful commenters expand and enrich the value of the blog and greatly advance its mission of encouraging quality ethical analysis and awareness. I have seen no decline in the quality of the comments since we debuted in 2009; in fact, I am very certain the commenters and comments have become sharper, more diverse, and for those with the fortitude to participate in them, more valuable.

In part, this is because I trash non-substantive, abusive and dumb comments daily. I also kick off commenters once they have made it clear that they are trolls, fools, or abusive boors. I am not bothered by the occasional insider references that make the comment section seem clubby, for I view Ethics Alarms as an open colloquy and participator seminar on ethics, leadership, and culture. Those who contribute regularly derive certain privileges—they even  get to call me names sometimes.

Most importantly, they—you— keep me on my toes, alert me to my failings and biases, and constantly teach me, inspire me, expand my perspective, and make Ethics Alarms the unique resource and forum that it is.

A commentary website displays  disrespect and contempt for its audience when it forbids the most engaged and interested of them to have their opinions published.

23 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Above The Law

  1. Jack,
    Since the article didn’t articulate a ruling either way: Is closing a comment section unethical? If so, why? As I see it, ATL isn’t limiting free thought, debate, or criticism; they’ve simply decided to no longer sponsor a platform for it. Considering they were never obliged to provide one in the first place, I can’t see that removing it now makes the decision any more or less ethical — especially when they’re looking at their bottom line.

    Keeping it Kosher,

    • I actually struggled with this for a little bit before settling on Jack being right, and it only took me so long because I’m a fogey that remembers a time before web 2.0, back in the time of Webcrawler and Netscape, and modems that made really neat noises where comment sections did not exist.

      But now they do exist, and sites that had them have operated on the idea that engaging their viewers, at least to the point of giving them a public feedback engine was beneficial to them. And now because they’re too lazy to actually care for what they’ve fostered, they’re pulling the plug. It’s cowardly. This is a classic example of while it is absolutely their right to remove comment sections, it is not right to do it.

    • The stated reasons for doing it were unethical, because they blamed commenters for conditions entirely within the site’s control. It’s like saying that you are cancelling school because the kids are unruly.

      ATL can spit out opinions without dissent or feedback if they want: it’s their site. But the values that decision represents are not the values of free expression, mutual respect or fairness. And the trend is a bad one: if everybody did it, the web would be a one way street.

  2. I avoid the comments sections on most everything I read on the internet. For the most part they are absolutely atrocious. This is, for lack of a better word, a boutique website. I suspect skeptics call it an echo chamber, but it seems pretty darned unique to me. I’ll take it, thank you.

    Is not allowing comment a bad thing. No. I don’t think so. Those are just bigger operations. I just wish you had a bigger megaphone Jack so that you could no longer engage with your commentors because you’d have so many. You should be George Will, or at least have the same agent he has. Oh well. Maybe next life.

  3. We should all give Jack a big hand for the work he has done on this blog including the moderation of the comments. I sometimes wonder if the man ever sleeps.

    I visit Above the Law almost solely for the comments. Sometimes I don’t even read the articles. I doubt I will go back and if I do, it will be rarely. Also, as many commenters pointed out during the postmortem that was the last article available for comments, sometimes, unlike here, the advice and or reasoning of the main blog is terrible and the nuggets are found in the comments.

    Although I don’t see the chaff that Jack separates from the wheat, thank you to the commenters for providing a consistently high quality of commentary. And thank you Jack, for the time you put in, and thank you to your family, who I am sure has to sacrifice time with you for our edification. It is not unappreciated.

  4. Long time lurker, first time poster.

    I appreciate this blog and its comments. Even though I consider myself pretty far right, I still very much appreciate the varied positions of the people who comment here, even when I wouldn’t agree with their position in a million years. It’s a refreshing change from most other websites, which tend to be echo chambers for one side or the other.

    • “even when I wouldn’t agree with their position in a million years.”

      Not any positions? Not ever?”

      Come on in, folder. The water’s fine. There’s a great lifeguard, as you see, and even if the splashing gets a little rough once in a while, there is always a lane* where newcomers can find a friend swimming in the same direction. Also, there’s a good filter for the small amount of pee that invariably spills when folks get excited.

      *no “safe space,” though.

      • Position singular. I might never agree with a certain position but still am grateful for (and learn a lot from) those with opposing viewpoints. The general civility is appreciated as well.

  5. “Most importantly, they—you— keep me on my toes, alert me to my failings and biases, and constantly teach me, inspire me, expand my perspective,”

    It’s a 2-way street there, Jack. Both your views and those of other commenters.

    And thanks.

  6. The main takeaway here is simple: To have a high-quality, valuable comments section, it must be aggressively moderated, preferably in accordance with a written, publicly available moderation policy. Smaller sites can do without the policy as long as the moderator is consistent.

    Every blog or web community I have seen that has casual, indifferent or laissez-faire moderation winds up being a haven of trolls, idiots, and other bits of sentient offal that render comments an actual detriment to the site. This is particularly true of people who try to apply a “freedom of speech” principle. What they get adds nothing but noise and drives away the thoughtful or serious reader interested in making remarks.

    Trolls and idiots always, always, always show up and will inevitably take over without aggressive moderation. I ran an online community in a huge meta-community for eight years, and the basic validity of this truism has been proven over and over ad infinitum.

    Your moderation is excellent, Jack. If your workload ever gets too high, recruit some additional help from the comments section – another simple expedient the objects of your commentary seem oblivious to. Comment moderation takes a lot of work and dedication, but that’s what it takes to build a quality Internet community.

    • Peculiarly, Glenn, your comment rang a dozen bells in my head. Its everything I ever heard complained about with regard to failed communes.

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