On Saturday, Tony Jordan, a parking reform advocate I’ve known and respected for years and who’s written stories for BikePortland, posted something on Twitter about a BikePortland comment. The conversations and concerns triggered by his Tweet (which I’m still responding to, three days later) have made me think deeply about our comment section.
Here’s Tony’s tweet:
Comments like this one on BikePortland reflect poorly on the community. It’s an exhausting and fruitless battle to argue with trolls, but letting them stand looks like consent.
— Tony Jordan (@twjpdx23) February 20, 2021
While I disagree with Tony, his concerns are valid.
Many people responded to Tony’s comment with their own opinions about how our comment section has changed over the years. Several people said they’ve stopped commenting or stopped visiting this site altogether because of the sometimes abusive words and bullying they’ve experienced at the hands of other commenters.
The critiques centered around a certain type of commenter and my lack of more heavy-handed moderation of them. You probably know the type: They are mostly men, are quick to demean the subject of a story, tip-toe the line of decency/indecency (or cross it at times), dominate threads with multiple comments, or who are simply not nice to others.
This is very complicated topic that I’ve wrestled with for many years. I often tell people that commenter opinions do not reflect BikePortland and they are certainly not a representation of “the bike community” (a troubling label in my opinion); but I can’t ignore that many people don’t see it that way.
As I have for the past 16 years, I’m the only person in charge of moderating comments. That has pros and cons. As the site (and the community’s expectations of it) has grown and the general tenor of our society has become more anxious and divisive (thanks Trump!), that task has become harder then ever.
My goal is to provide a platform for robust discussions where everyone feels valued and welcome. I take that part of my job very seriously.
Currently I give readers a very long leash in the comment section. There’s no log-in required. Anonymity is OK. A rough tone is tolerated up to a certain point. I do this because I value open discussions and I want to host as many voices as possible. I have no interest in an echo chamber and I don’t want to provide a sanitized version of reality. I encourage voices that challenge entrenched dogma because I believe strongly that a lack of debate prevents Portland from moving forward on many difficult issues.
But therein lies the rub: How can we balance this need for robust and challenging debates in a way that supports as many people as possible?
It’s not enough to host opposing voices if they result in harm and silencing of others.
BikePortland comments might never feel safe to everyone (important debates are bound to be too heated for some people), but they could feel a lot safer for many. And if we can get better at this, the result is something very valuable and exciting.
(By the way, we have separate communities over on our Instagram and Facebook pages that are much more light-hearted and skew younger and are less male-dominated if you’d like to interact with our content on those platforms. We also have an email with all our stories that you can read without coming to the main site.)
Another realization from Tony’s Twitter thread: Being a white, straight man of privilege makes it easier for me to have a high tolerance level for mean comments. I have a famously low tolerance for mean words directed toward bicycle riders from car users. But I have a higher tolerance for mean words directed at people whom I don’t identify with as strongly? That’s not OK.
From now on all comments will be held back for manual review and approval before they are published. I will also be moderating with an even keener eye for instances of meanness, bullying, misogyny, homophobia, or racism.
Our comment section has survived a long time. It was here before legacy media outlets like The Oregonian had one, and it’s still here long after they’ve given up on them. I have no intention of shutting them down and I remain convinced they are worth fighting for — but only if we stop fighting in them. I appreciate everyone who comments and hope you understand we all play a role in making the comment section something we can all be proud of.
As the owner of this business, my work to make them better is far from done. Stay tuned.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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