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Above the Law’s Comment Section Sinks Below the Waves

6288497038_5d4e68c0b5_oTalking New Media has brought my attention to the fact that Above the Law announced on Tuesday that it is shutting down its comment section. Starting tomorrow, this legal blog will no longer allow comments to be left on its posts:

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).

It’s not clear how or why our comments changed in number and quality. Did the layoffs of the Great Recession cause lawyers and staff to worry about sharing sensitive inside information about their firms on the web? Did the revelation of NSA surveillance by Edward Snowden make everyone paranoid about their digital footprints? Did the rise of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, redirect quality conversation to other venues? We don’t know.

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.

Inspired by these sites, ATL will also be eliminating comments, effective tomorrow.

It is times like this that I am very grateful for the comment section here at The Digital Reader.

It’s not just that the community here is such that I would not dream of shutting off the comments (not even temporarily like The Verge and Engadget) but also that I have a first-hand example of how it is still possible, even in 2016, to have a positive and engaged comment section.

If even a socially inept solo blogger such as myself can foster an engaged comment section, then what are all these big sites doing wrong?

I haven’t worked for those sites, so I can’t answer that with any certainty, but I think Techdirt is on to something:

Many sites justify the move by claiming comments sections are just so packed with pile that they’re beyond redemption, though studies show it doesn’t actually take much work to raise the discourse bar and reclaim your comment section from the troll jungle if you just give half a damn (as in, just simple community engagement can change comment tone dramatically). Case in point is Salon, which decided to repair its awful comment section by hiring a full time moderator, rewarding good community involvement, and treating commenters like actual human beings.

You can read a similar arguments over at Digiday.

Could it be that simple?

I can’t answer that question with absolute certainty, but I do know that a site just as responsible for the tone of its comment section as it is for the editorial slant. We can see that in the sites which have shed their comment section, and also in Salon, which invested in its commentariat.

What do you think is the cause of the decline in some comment sections? What am I not seeing?

image by Tama Leaver

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Mackay Bell April 12, 2016 um 9:08 pm

Interesting point. I’ve always suspected that a modest amount of engaged moderation was probably all that was needed. It isn’t too hard to delete the comments of obvious trolls. Nor does it take much more than a little nudge to get most people to stay on point.

But it also might have something to do with the site’s curation. Your management of relevant links and your associated intelligent commentary might just appeal to a very high level of human being.

Nate Hoffelder April 12, 2016 um 9:44 pm

And also that I listen and integrate the comments as feedback.

Some of the comments that stuck out over at AtL was that a chunk of the community has routinely objected to one of the bloggers' career advice posts:

Holy Shit.

You realize that law school students and naive new lawyers might read Shannon’s advice, assume it was edited for content, and, with no comments to point out how wrong she is, actually try to follow her advice?!?!?!

It sounds like those commenters are being ignored, which is a problem. If the commenters are wrong, then they need to be vanquished. If they are right, then they need to be listened to. Ignoring them fosters resentment and tells them that AtL doesn’t care about the commenters' opinions.

And I can readily say that that was the first misstep in managing AtL’s the comment section.

NoCleverName April 14, 2016 um 3:24 pm

I am one of the former ATL commenters (although a relatively new one). To further elucidate on this specific point, ATL has various contributors who represent specific viewpoints and whose columns are meant to provide a specific insight into their viewpoint. However, with a couple of notable exceptions, the contributors tended to be completely unqualified to write a column providing insight to whatever their niche was supposed to be.

The contributor about whom the comment you quoted was written is a prime example of how absurd this system was. Her column was ostensibly about how to go through a legal job search as someone who did not get a job before graduating law school (which is a relatively common position for law school grads to be in). However, she admitted that she had gone to a very poorly ranked school, had gotten very poor grades, and had never actually managed to get a job offer despite consistently trying for something like 5 years.

Yet here she is, writing an advice column meant to help people get a job, without ever having achieved that feat herself. That is pretty much the epitome of ATL’s current content.

As I mentioned above, there were a couple of notable authors and contributors who provided decent quality content and decent writing, and for the most part the commentariat (that’s actually the moniker we used there) was civil to them, apart from some light ribbing, and probably the occasional over the line jab. This is the internet, after all.

Greg Strandberg April 12, 2016 um 10:33 pm

I do believe I saw an article on Social Media Examiner or Content Marketing Institute a few weeks back saying many sites were going back to comments.

As I always say, when there’s one business doing bad in town another business across town will be doing great.

When one site is having issues with comments another is not.

I do not have any desire to visit that site. Whatever concerns they have, I can assure you, are not shared by the majority of us. I’d never even heard of the site before this.

Michael April 12, 2016 um 11:53 pm

Popular science who dropped their comments a few years ago for a different reason.

They did note the problem with trolls, but they also cited issues with readers being influenced by the comments. Specifically they pointed to studies that showed readers would interpret the article one way if read by itself, but that strong comments could change the readers opinion — despite the fact that the comments were in no way vetted.

David North April 13, 2016 um 12:03 am

I think one of the biggest reasons for the insurgency in comments section is the lack of willingness by owners to ban people and kick them out. To much effort to show tolerance and understanding to those who are simply wiping their behinds with the owner’s site and getting a giggle from the attention of it.

It also is a lot of work to "win over a troll" and it usually isn’t possible. In my board admin days, it took private correspondence, voluminous, heavily pondered replies, carefully crafted and ridiculous amounts of time and attention to pull back in some of even the milder trolls.

We’re so concerned today about offending even the most offensive people or seeming intolerant to the most intolerant that we sometimes forget that if you are "in your own house" and someone is smashing your furniture and treating your guests badly that you have a right to invite them to go and to remove them if they don’t.

I don’t like this as an automated process or inflexible rules administered by uninterested moderators but the fact is, letting a community know that they can’t take liberties at a certain level is a good thing.

dan April 13, 2016 um 9:30 am

I read both this blog and ATL. The first few comments on articles were always in jokes which weren’t funny the first dozen times let alone the next hundred. The obligatory one was, "People did that at my law school. It was no big deal," for _every_ story. The next few comments were often vile. ATL put them behind an extra click years ago and I haven’t read them for years.

Straker April 13, 2016 um 11:41 am

Part of the reason we’re so civilized here is that this blog deals with rather "low heat" topics. Sure, we all have our opinions about Kindle vs. Nook etc. but it’s hard to work up a whole lot of anger/hatred/violence about things like that. Change the subject to presidential politics, abortion, or immigration policy and maintaining a moderate tone would quickly become more challenging.

I think kboards does a good job moderating a large number of comments, particularly in the Writers' Cafe area, which gets the most traffic. They can be a little heavy-handed at times (and I wish they hadn’t banned most discussion of erotica) but they’re generally effective in squashing flame wars and personal attacks.

Robert Nagle April 14, 2016 um 10:30 am

I think it has to do with how much web traffic you have. The smaller the crowd, the less likely you are to have people willing to arouse ire (especially if you are the only one and the site has a lot of regular visitors). If you have less than 10 comments for a post, it’s virtually certain that no one will go on a rant.

MKS April 14, 2016 um 1:11 pm

I think sites with identifiable individual bloggers who engage with the commenters both in the comments section and in their content tend to have the best comments section. Usually such blogs have a narrower focus, and the owner also has more credibility in his/her area of expertise as well. Large media sites tend to have reporters or columnists who are just repeating or summarizing at a shallower level material from experts, and also never respond to comments or suggestions publically, leaving moderation to voting systems that invite gaming from trolls.

Nate here is a real person to me who knows his stuff and thanks people for helping; the comments themselves are valuable content. (though I’ve posted some clunkers…mea culpa)

Nate Hoffelder April 14, 2016 um 2:30 pm


To answer both you and Robert Nagle at the same time, I think this explains why I have a good comment section, and why a huge site like Techdirt has a great comment section. Both sites have known bloggers which engage with the audience.

I mean, Techdirt does have trolls but they’re not a huge problem. So it is possible for a huge news site to solve this problem.

John Hastings April 14, 2016 um 2:58 pm

THE MEDIA TO THE LITTLE GUY READER: You will be spoken to by us but we will not listen to you. You cannot discuss what we say with other listeners. Go to the corner, put on your dunce cap, quickly STFU.

Fr0zt April 14, 2016 um 3:02 pm

I was a prolific commenter on AtL for the last few years, and I think the consensus has been that AtL really just doesn’t want to hear anything about the dramatic decline about the content of the site itself.

When I started reading, it felt like some effort and research went into the stories, but now it feels like the staff generally is trying to collect ad revenue and fill space with as little effort as possible. About a third of the articles are written by failed lawyers trying to sell the secret to success through meditation, blogging, or wherever snake oil they’re pitching.

Another third are screeds about racism, sexyism, or diversity. And while these are real problems in the profession, AtL doesn’t really add anything to the discussion — it just uses the issue fill space with people bemoaning the topic without meaningful solutions, under the belief that anyone who complains about the lack of substance is a bigot.

Whatever actual "news" is left is basically just links to better legal websites like Law360, and half the time AtL bungles the facts of the story by not reading the stories they link to. There really seems to be a concerted effort to do as little research (or legal analysis) as possible into any of these stories.

Sadly, I think the only value AtL has anymore is as a reporting for bonuses, and it is likely that some other forum will replace it for that.

Unemployed Northeastern April 14, 2016 um 4:04 pm

Did ATL comments close? Yes. Does that mean that the ATL commentariat is dead? Nope. They just set up their own Disqus forum. 24 discussions and 54 followers in just over one day; not a bad start!

Westward Ho April 14, 2016 um 5:18 pm

The quality of the content at ATL really declined over the past several years, and in turn, that seemed to fuel even greater criticism of the site in the comments. I’m not sure about the claims of offensive comments — there was some borderline stuff, but most of it seemed to be directed at the content of the articles or the writers, not the typical troll infighting that you see on sites that leads them to either moderate or ban comments.

My perspective is that either the site got tired of the constant criticism of the quality of the site’s content in the comments or they decided that having a comments section didn’t fit with their current model for publishing content on the site. I didn’t really see any other flagrant commenting violations that would explain shutting down comments entirely. I agree with the characterization one commenter here made that the site seemed to have begun resorting to more click-through type ads and enticements as of late, and maybe that model doesn’t need commenter participation to support it.

NotyouraverageDave April 14, 2016 um 5:43 pm

I think you non-ATL frequent visitors/comments are having an interesting meta discussion of sorts about the state of comments sections generally on the internet. What I think you’re missing is that, as a general matter, the ATL commentariat consists (I guess consisted) mostly of attorneys who attended top law schools and either work or worked for the very top law firms in the country. Point being, they are generally very intelligent and highly successful folks, who (especially historically) maintained a very high level of discourse with respect to serious articles, but also had a lot of fun personas, jokes etc. that lighted what can be the generally tense and gloomy world of big law (esp during and after the recession).

Lately the comments section has indeed declined, but that is also and perhaps most of all because ATL itself has. It used to be geared towards and provide insight to people who work at those very top law firms in big law. Now, it is full of horribly written articles by editors/writers who clearly have no idea WTF they are talking about. The only time people (like me) who are in the big law world talk about ATL now is during bonus season or if they happen to actually break a story about layoffs, a firm merger etc. (which generally never happens anymore as they just steal articles from Law360 or the American Lawyer, etc.)

Overall, my point is that ATL’s readers are not the typical readers of a news site or even many topic specific sites as it’s basically an industry blog frequented by people who are in the industry. The outpouring of angry and commenters who never comment on ATL on their article about killing comments, may be a real death knell for the site as most of its readers will have no reason to go there anymore. We will watch, trying to not be gleeful, now to see how quickly it goes into full decline.

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