What Happened to the Comments?

We’re turning off the comments for a little bit. Here’s why.

Psychologists don’t recommend trying to address trauma while you’re still in danger. Step 1, get out of danger. Step 2, deal with your mental health. What’s different about 2020 is that there’s no way out. Climate change, racial injustice, an air-borne pathogen that has many of us trapped in our homes and others of us risking our lives in order to pay the bills — they’re all here to stay for at least the foreseeable future. So, we have to find a way to live through it.

What does that have to do with the streets.mn comment section? A lot, really.

We know how valuable many of our readers find the comment section. We prided ourselves in the fact that they were much better than other corners of the internet (even if that may be a low bar). Sure, folks can get a little explain-y sometimes, and people disagree with varying degrees of passion. But for the most part, they were manageable for our volunteer moderators and added value to the conversation.

After six months of living our lives in a drastically different way, people are on edge. I see it at home, at my job (which I’m also doing from home), and at the grocery store (the only other place I go besides my home). I know my temper has gotten shorter and shorter as the pandemic has droned on. It’s not a coincidence that the comment section has become harder to moderate and added less value over that same time period. We’ve lost writers because of it, and other writers express similar concerns. And our volunteer writers are what makes streets.mn exist.

What does this mean for our commenters?

Starting today, all new posts will default to having the comments turned off. Writers will be able to opt-in to comments if they’d like, but we’ll be asking them to take a slightly larger role in managing the conversation. We have only a couple moderators, and they’re all very tired. We’ve tried unsuccessfully the last few months to recruit folks for this unglamorous job.

If you have a response to an article, and you’re not able to comment on it, please consider writing your own article. We really want to hear your well-researched counterpoint about the best way to help our unhoused neighbors, how much you do or don’t miss your commute, or how you would have laid out the street grid in Saint Paul differently. You can learn about becoming a writer in the Write section at the top of the website.

Is this forever?

No, we hope not. At our most recent board meeting, one board member pointed out that if we can’t handle our commenters, what are we doing? We’re taking a breather (and giving our moderators a break) while we figure out how to keep the conversation going in a more positive, collaborative, and supportive way. We’re going to talk about what to do in more detail over the next month, and make a decision how to move forward at the October board meeting.

How can I help?

I’m so glad you asked! Any comment section will always need moderation, so please consider volunteering to be a moderator, if you can commit to a couple months of actively moderating. You can contact us if you want to help out. You can also give suggestions in the comments on this post, which we will leave open. Please remember, as always, to follow our comment guidelines: comment from your own perspective, be respectful and aware of your own privilege, and have an attitude of learning. We want everyone to feel welcome here, and you are a critical part of making that happen.

Thank you.

Hannah Pritchard

About Hannah Pritchard

Hannah Pritchard is a pedestrian and bicycle engineer at MnDOT. Bicycle commuter, bassoonist, and cat enthusiast, Hannah has been part of the streets.mn board since 2016.

21 thoughts on “What Happened to the Comments?

  1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    I am really glad that we are working to make streets.mn more welcoming to people, and changing the comment section into opt-in for authors will definitely help. This is a great explanation of our goals with this trial – thanks for writing this, Hannah!

  2. Josh

    I support this. The negativity was reaching STRIB levels which I believe is hurtful to the success of what is, a volunteer blog.

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      Thanks for your support, Josh! We definitely didn’t take this lightly, but ultimately, we need to make sure our writers are comfortable and we were hearing that they’re not.

  3. Sheldon Gitis

    Sounds like a reasonable approach. Let the author choose whether or not to receive feedback and then let the author deal with, or not deal with, the comments.

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      Thanks, Sheldon! We’re trying to balance fostering discussion with not burning out our mods.I don’t want this to be the only answer, but it’s a good start.

  4. Scott Walters

    I’ve already found the comments here interesting and fun to read. Things get a little out of hand rarely, but I think you guys do a great job. I’m sorry to see this, hopefully comments come back soon. Along with so many other things I’m missing (along with everyone else). I appreciate your frustrations, however, and can’t say I blame you for reaching this point.

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m a bit disappointed — I also have mostly had good experiences with the comment section, which is generally thoughtful and reasoned. I think it’s fine for writers who don’t want to deal with it to opt out, but I don’t love that being the default. Hope it is a temporary change only. Thanks for all that the mod team does.

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      I know, I am disappointed, too! I’ve had mostly good experiences. But, what you can’t see (because they get removed) is that we’ve had an increase in personal attacks against other commenters as well as the authors themselves. I’m all for disagreement, but “who does this guy think he is?” isn’t super helpful. And it’s taking a toll on the mods to remove that stuff. So, we’ll keep you posted on where this goes…

  6. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson

    Maybe the folks who find the comments valuable will write posts themselves, as this post suggests. I think that is a good idea. I hope they read the streets.mn mission and values as they prepare to write. https://streets.mn/about/

  7. Andrew E

    Is the website capable of requiring commentators to register and create a profile? If so, that could help lessen the load by allowing the moderation team to impose account suspensions (after three strikes) or deletions/bans (after a suspension fails to work). If it is only a few bad apples creating the majority of the headache (which is often the case), this could help remove the headache while still allowing lots of commenting and discussion.

    Also, I would like to respectful point out that the vast majority of comments I read on here are respectful and make a valid point, even if that point happens to be slightly-changed standard pro-car/anti-bike/etc response. Many of the comments and subsequent discussions are useful additions to the original work, especially when there is a strong dialogue arguing more than one side of an issue. I will offer the idea that a writer who finds respectful criticism to be unwelcoming is likely posting to find affirmation and validation, and not to engage in a dialogue. There is nothing wrong with that, however I don’t have this site bookmarked and perused weekly for that type of content.

    Just my 2 cents, which I guess with inflation are probably worth less than that.

    1. Tim BrackettModerator  

      Thank you for this feedback and suggestion. The board is certainly considering all options, but we understand the comment section is an important part of our mission to foster positive connections and inclusive conversations about better places in Minnesota.

  8. Mark

    Very disappointing, but not surprising, especially considering the recent decoupling with the forum which, at least for me, had tremendous value. Most articles are great and well thought out, but every now and then one slips by with some key errors, or missing a large puzzle piece. For those articles the comments can be beneficial for feedback, helping teach the author something they may have missed, helping them become a better writer, or encouraging a spirited discussion. Without discussion things become an echo chamber. In the short term I’ll watch for which authors turn off comments, and likely bypass their articles in the future since they’re not open to feedback.

  9. Ben

    I understand comments that are person attacks are unacceptable, so I understand this break. I worry because in the past, I have seen moderators come down on comments for having the “wrong” opinion. I personally disagree with them, as well, but I think it’s crucial that everyone has a chance to voice their opinion; otherwise, streets.mn becomes an echo chamber. I hope that streets.mn goes forward with enforcing the rules on all comments or none of them, not just ones they disagree with.

  10. Anon

    Would it be possible to make two versions of the email list? One would send all articles, the other would send articles which allow comments. Thanks.

  11. James Schoettler

    Bad decision. Maybe just attach a warning “Comments not recommended for mature adults; click at your peril”.

  12. Matt

    Very disappointed to see this and for me at least it really devalues streets.mn. I have found the majority of comments valuable, and many of them were as informative and interesting as the article itself – not uncommonly, more so. They added great counterpoint in many articles, and more than once I thought to myself how the article-comment dialogue on this site is like listening to a conversation between intelligent, knowledegable adults. A rare case these days. And TBH, the comments section was a space where some of the biases in the articles (and on streets.mn in general) were challenged – almost always in a respectful manner. Removing comments will, as a commenter above notes, lead this site to be an echo chamber (Hmm, a commenter providing useful counterpoint for readers. Interesting).

    And for people like me, who is interested in the issues discussed on this site but not in the business of transportation, a solution of “write an article” is really not an option. I am being educated on these issues and don’t have the background the writers do, so this is a little like saying “Want to learn about Shakespeare? Write a play!”. Unless of course this site has always been for people who work in the Minnesota transportation infrastructure – in which case I’m sorry for nosing in.

    I rarely saw comments that crossed the line, although I have to agree there seem to be more lately. Maybe the mods have been extremely fast on removing them so I never knew. In which case kudos the the mods and appreciation to the writers who put up with the trolls who seem to ruin every good web site eventually.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

      I’m glad that you haven’t been exposed to too many problematic comments, it is a good indicator that we’re being successful in our moderation. We work very hard to remove them quickly, but it takes quite a bit of time and attention (especially lately). As Hannah said, we hope to recruit more moderators so that we continue to be “much better than other corners of the internet (even if that may be a low bar)” – and ideally to raise that bar!

      We are glad you’re here, and I want to assure you that this site is meant to be for all folks (not just those who work in transporation/etc.). We’re actively working to recruit writers from different areas/perspectives, and we’d welcome you as a writer as well. You can find more information at our “Write for streets.mn” page https://streets.mn/write/ :

      “streets.mn needs your voice to carry out our mission to expand the conversation on transportation and land use. If you’ve ever thought about what makes your street wonderful or challenging, considered how cities grow and change, or ridden a bus or a bike, you could write about it for streets.mn.

      Posts range from personal essays to technical analyses and combinations of everything in between. streets.mn welcomes all perspectives, from experienced professionals sharing their research to high school students’ observations; we’re particularly interested in posts with viewpoints not already represented on the site.”

  13. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    I really enjoy reading and sometimes leaving my own comments as an article can be a great read and be missing some things or have some incorrect info based on actual personal experience. sometimes, they might need a clarification like, what did you mean when you said……I’d actually sometimes like to send a comment to the author rather than trying to stimulate a side conversation. Just some thoughts

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