Creating Technology for Social Change

The Beauty and Terror of Commenting Communities: Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Media Lab

How can writers nurture great commenting communities while still engaging with the tough questions?

Speaking at the Media Lab today is Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic and author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Before The Atlantic, Coates worked for The Village Voice, the Washington City Paper, and Time. Coates a visiting researcher here at MIT this year.

“I’m a college dropout,” Coates reminds us. He’s a writer now, but he failed English once in high school and twice in college. Coates started writing in 1996 and left school because he was in love with writing. He didn’t understand at the time that writing could be a career. Once he figured out that he could get paid, he left to focus on his writing. For the first 12 years, Coates was a product of print. His father ran a small independent press. Growing up, there were books everywhere; he never expected to become an Internet writer.

In 2008, Ta-Nehisi found himself with nothing to do. His book manuscript was finished, his last story was finished, and he felt floating in the wind. At the time, he was a consumer of blogs, but he hadn’t ever tried to write his own. Then his employer, Time Magazine, mandated that every employee must blog. It was the Hot Thing, and Time encouraged writers to specialize– to develop an “Internet Beat.” That felt wrong to him. He wanted to throw together his passions: the commodore 64, Dungeons and Dragons, race.

At the time, Coates liked Matthew Yglesias’s blog. But he hated that comments always turned to issues of race. A blog post about as something as mundane as a parking garage would easily attract racist comments. That felt like grafitti on a work of art. Coates decided that on his blog, he would try to pay attention to community. Over time, community has become the great strength of his blog.

Coates wants his blog to be a place where people feel safe– not that they won’t face hard arguments– but that people wouldn’t feel a pariah status while reading. He compares a blog post to a dinner party. A good host simply won’t allow some things to be said, and a blog conversation is much the same.

“Once you take out the rubbish and clear away the weeds, flowers begin to grow.” There’s a lot of rubbish out there, Coates tells us. People who don’t normally comment will come forward if you cultivate a good garden. Now, his readers will often offer new information and helpful insights that he never knew. Great commenters offer interesting ideas that offer the advantages of peer review without its downsides.

Coates’s series of posts about the civil war are a great example of great community conversations online. Recently, Coates posted letters from Dangerfield Newby, who joined John Brown on his famous raid.In response, commenters sent in fascinating context about Newby’s family story.

Old media often see Internet as a cesspool. While we can find that stuff if we want to, Coates tells us that the Internet can offer amazing opportunities to find and curate positive community. He tells us the story of one of his commenters who would write amazing, beautifully-written posts with lots of hyperlinks and sources. The community played guessing games to find out who this was: was it James Fallows? Or Obama? It turned out to be a Babson professor. Coates told his editor that this guy should write for the site. And now he does.

A great writer shouldn’t be afraid to look stupid in public. In the age of pundits, we tend to put people on high. But a good writer and community curator will be open to contributions.


Sasha asks how he manages his community. Coates thinks that the most important work happened in his first year. It’s also important to be a compassionate writer, to be someone who can empathize with readers. How does Coates decide who to block and ban? Be an authoritarian despot about what you value. It’s the Internet after all; you can always go elsewhere.

Chris asks Coates about Reddit, which has tens of thousands of subreddits. Lots of people look at Reddit like Coates sees the Internet. Coates doesn’t have a problem with Reddit; he does take issue with the view that people who post photos of teenage girls without their consent can expect to remain anonymous. Nevertheless, he thinks that people who call out trolls also take pleasure from calling them out. It’s a little too easy to say that this person is awful. Maybe we just shouldn’t feed the trolls.

How can large organisations take on the lessons of Coates blog comments? The Atlantic is trying to figure it out right now. Although many publications closely analyse their comments, those numbers don’t necessarily relate to quality, engagement, or impact. The Washington Post posts notices say “5,000 comments. Join the conversation.” When Coates sees that, he thinks it’s a bar he doesn’t want to join. That’s what traffic and uniques are for. Comments are about community. In contrast, Coates specialises on boutique, community conversations. He’s looking into inviting some community members to moderate comments in the future.

I asked about the story of the commenter who became a writer for The Atlantic. Since the commenter is a professor, isn’t this just another example of privilege? Coates prefers to think about it in terms of expertise. He’s often frustrated to see political hacks as talking heads on topics whose experts aren’t invited to talk. The Internet doesn’t necessarily lead to dock workers who write posts about particle physics. That’s the romance of democracy, but the reality is more complex. This history professor genuinely had something to say, but not a way to say it. Now he does.

Flourish asks about the practice of Doxing. Lots of fan writers would be at risk of losing their jobs if their names were revealed. When Coates considered moving comments to real names, the community responded very negatively. Women were especially concerned about the consequences if their gender were made public.

Chris Peterson asks about the experience of teaching at MIT and Simmons. Coates starts out with some gentle ribbing. High School movies are real: nerds do really exist! He loves his students. For most of his life, learning was a solitary experience. It’s a wonderful privilege to inflict that on 18 and 19 year olds. His goal is to help them see what works in writing and what doesn’t. These problems don’t change. It’s always hard to begin a new piece. Editors don’t stop sending disheartening notes.

Students take courses more seriously and intensely than he expected. Coates sometimes has to dial them back. He didn’t realise that some people can take their work so seriously that they can have health issues. Recently, Coates offered a writing assignment on meritocracy: do students feel like they deserve to be here? Very few MIT students felt this way. Many MIT students are also first and second generation immigrants.

Arlene asks for observations on what it means to be a first or second generation immigrant at MIT. Students will present hard work and frugality as values of their parents’ culture. But these values aren’t necessarily Indian, Chinese, or Korean. They’re immigrant values. Having lived within a black-white diagram of the world, Coates has enjoyed this deep encounter with immigrant experiences.

Erhardt Graeff asks how people online responded to Coates’s article, The Fear of a Black President. Coates made a decision early on not to filter the conversation on the article. He left it open in order to offer evidence in support of the article’s claims. Despite this, the comments probably aren’t a good indication of how it was received. Perhaps he might have gained a better sense of its reception if he were still on Twitter.

Sasha asks if our focus on verbal racism on comments is allowing us to ignore other forms of racism in society. Maybe we can point at comments, say “I’m not like that,” and ignore structural racism. Coates responds that while the world needs more change and greater struggle, he also doesn’t want to live in a world with overt racism. He draws a comparison to people who claim that the Civil War didn’t change things. If we’re not careful, we can throw up our hands and fail to notice positive change. It’s easy from 40-50 years after civil rights to say that overt racism was a lot easier to confront. But if the water hose and dogs were on us, we might not see it that way.