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Talking in Public

By Emily Warn

A housekeeping post: We realized that unless we highlighted how commenting works on Harriet, she could morph from this….
into this…

Before explaining how commenting works (so that we are completely transparent), let me back up a bit. Harriet, the blog, is an iteration of Harriet Monroe’s Open Door policy:
“The Open Door. will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions.”
—Harriet Monroe, 1912
We don’t publish poems on Harriet—the magazine does that. Instead, every three to four months we select a new group of four to five poets to form—we hope—an eclectic group with an interesting mix of perspectives. Harriet is an editorial free-zone. Bloggers can write about any subject as long as it relates to poets or poetry. We don’t edit posts unless we notice a mistake that might embarrass a blogger. To encourage conversation, we ask that bloggers respond to their fellow bloggers as well as to people who comment.
After receiving a few email complaints from readers about some overly combative comments we approved, we polled our current bloggers to find out how they felt. As you might guess, their opinions varied. Some found the comments disconcerting; others were not at all bothered. A few asked that we more publicly state our policy. To date our policy has been to approve all comments except those that are personal attacks, or those that reveal a private matter without another person’s consent. We also require that commenters include a name and email address for several reasons, the primary ones are to help us differentiate comments from SPAM and to let us contact people about why their post hasn’t been approved (this generally leads to constructive conversations). For example, just today one person left a comment asking how to publish poems on Harriet.
In theory our policy seemed simple. Applying it has been thorny. A tongue-in-cheek jab can be off-putting to some bloggers and commenters, and bullying to others. When does a jab or a polemical twist become a personal attack? Some comments are unmistakably personal insults; others border on being so, making the decision to approve them a subjective one. Also we’ve discovered, that if we reject a comment—even if we explain our reasons—Harriet grows more thug-like in the minds of those we’ve rejected. Why? Harriet is exercising her power in private—the antithesis of how to build a public space in which an open, democratic, provocative conversation can take place.
So this week, we’re trying a more personal, more participatory approach. As Harriet’s current ventriloquist—the one in the background who is ultimately responsible for clicking “approve”—I’m joining in more. The basic comment policy will stay the same: If a comment obviously attacks a person rather than his or her ideas, I won’t publish it. But if a comment teeters on being offensive in such a way that I think it stifles debate, or silences those who are less comfortable with talking publicly, then I’ll approve it but chime in to ask the commenter for clarification.
Only a tiny fraction of all comments raises these issues. And Harriet is not the only blog wrestling with how to handle comments. Travis Nichols pointed me to similar debates:
Why Andrew Sullivan doesn’t allow comments on The Dish
Dan Savage asks for feedback on whether “per-post comments are lint traps”
Ideas? Thoughts? Quips?
P.S. Here’s Harriet Monroe as she appeared in Vanity Fair in 1920 sans the “photoshopped” tux:

Comments (5)

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, July 15th, 2008 by Emily Warn.