Yes, Closing Comment Sections is a Loss

A person typing on a laptop.

Internet comments seem to be the subject of criticism that won’t go away. Hell, even Reddit is launching a new news site that won’t allow commenting.With comments often loaded with harassment, trolling, highly offensive language, and sometimes threats, it’s clear why some see comment sections to be a failure and offering little value to a site to continue. One of the latest sites to remove comment sections from its content is Motherboard, a publication of Vice. Motherboard’s Editor-in-Chief, Derek Mead, announced the removal of comments with the headline “We’re Replacing Comments With Something Better”. I clicked, curious to see what this “something better” was, and to find out whether or not it would turn out to be better.

Good moderation is valuable, and it requires companies treat moderators as more than simple comment police. Moderators are integral to the growth of communities, especially when moderators may be the first line of contact in the community team chain, depending on the side of your company or site. To get that quality, it has to be built into your operating costs. Many companies don’t cultivate community teams and invest in community development, backed up with sufficient funding to have good moderation and allow community managers and team members to spend a larger part of their days within the community instead of being marketing evangelists.

What Motherboard is doing is taking the comments section and instead of letting people comment as before, they have an open email address and other methods of communication for those who feel compelled to submit feedback. Making some effort a requirement on the behalf of the heretofore commenter in order to submit feedback is but one step that will probably reduce feedback, but might increase its quality.

The announcement noted that Motherboard’s staff had been contemplating the move for a year, and noted that those who justify comment sections note that when they are well-moderated, the cream can be filtered to the top and much of the harassment and noise can be eliminated. In other words, well-moderated comment sections provide value.

However, the announcement also included one important acknowledgment. Motherboard wants to devote its resources to content, meaning that it’s a direct admission that good moderation takes resources.

The argument for comments has long been that a well-moderated section lowers the barrier to entry for readers to share their thoughts, positive or otherwise. In a vacuum, that sounds like a dream, but the key there is “well-moderated.” Good comment sections exist, and social media can be just as abrasive an alternative.

Good moderation is an investment in people in your comments sections and in your communities who know your community members well, and can anticipate their needs, know their methods of expression, and serve their usage patterns.

Motherboard will select from received feedback once a week, the site will publish some of what the staff deems the most insightful comments. On the one hand, that is a form of moderation, but it’s after the fact, time has passed, the comment may no longer be topical, and it cuts off something very important when it comes to communities: interaction between people. This is, in effect, a version of the old “Letters to the Editor” segment of the newspaper. Letters to the Editor sections still exist, but the format that arose and, arguably took over, were internet comment sections. What Motherboard’s decision feels like is a potential step backward.

The people most in favor of closing comments seem to be those who will say you have a blog, a Facebook or Twitter account, so you can respond however you’d like, on your own spaces. These decentralized methods of responding to the same source material are still needed, but one hopes such decentralization is not the result of passing the buck.

By cutting off the immediacy of response and by dragging a wedge between users, a screen, between your audience members, you leave no room for a community to grow. Motherboard, in acknowledging the importance of good moderation and still dumping comments with a statement about redirecting its resources into content, is openly declaring quality moderation something not worth investing in for the site. Direct community building may not be ideal for some companies after all. Yet many sites do not want to make the investment in a good moderation and community team, instead preferring to pass the responsibility over to social media and blogging platforms. In other words: not our problem, but have fun when your users make it yours.


Why Cool For the Summer Bothers Me

Demi Lovato - Cool For the Summer artwork

Another summer, another banging pop song winds up inescapable. Over the past month, Demi Lovato released and went on promotional appearances for her latest single, “Cool For the Summer”. I think Demi Lovato is a talented young singer, and enjoy some of her past work. I own two of her albums, Demi and Unbroken, so I expected a fun little song suitable for summer dancing or workouts.

After a few listens, however, “Cool For the Summer” doesn’t sit well, and I can’t shake it. Written by a team of five, including Lovato, Max Martin, Ali Payami, Alexander Erik Kronlund, and Savan Kotecha, the lyrics aren’t pronoun-specific, but suggest a bi-curious summer fling. While there’s nothing wrong with exploring your sexuality, the tone of the lyrics point to tired old beliefs that might also be among some of the reasons more bisexual people haven’t come out, despite making up the largest slice of the LGBTQIA+ population.

The lyrics include such lines as:

I’m a little curious, too

Tell me if it’s wrong

If it’s right

I don’t care

I can keep a secret, can you?

Sure, some people might consider a fling in general as something adventurous and maybe not talk about it as much, but the other implication here is that exploring sexuality in this manner, or a bicurious experience, is something that is potentially wrong or needs to be kept secret. These sentiments simply feel stale. Our culture is far from perfect when it comes to acceptance, but I’d like to think we’ve come at least a little further than wink wink I’ve got a secret bisexual exploration. The implication continues in the rest of the song.

Don’t tell your mother

Kiss one another

Die for each other

We’re cool for the summer

Again with the whole hush hush down low thing. The rest of the song is a hooky pop craft of fun, no-strings attraction, which is a fine choice if that’s what you’re into. But I simply can’t get past the bad taste these lyrics leave in my mouth.

On Fangirling, Social Media, and Positivity

Recently, a writer seemed to conflate fangirling with praising other women and pegged these gestures, especially if made in public spaces, especially online, as disingenuous. Later, she adds that in the past, when contact information or an address for celebrities and other known individuals was harder to find, sending a letter of praise actually took some work, so it meant more. This is the old “I walked three miles to school in the snow, up seven hills, and barefoot” cliché. Just because something took longer or was more difficult to achieve doesn’t automatically give it more worth. Social media isn’t a throwaway for most people. The argument comes off as a dismissal of the modern instead of realizing that people often simply find new ways of doing the same things. We’re social animals, and just because we can reach out to those we admire more easily and openly, it doesn’t devalue the statements within.

An example cited in the piece was a tweet by actress Anna Kendrick talking about shaking at the unforgettable moment of meeting Beyonce. Now, putting myself in that position, I would also be shaking at meeting Beyonce. None of this effusive praise is new; it’s just the format has changed, grown, and widened.

I was sixteen when I attended a reading featuring Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez, whose work I devoured, related to, found traces of my own family within, and from her work, even drew inspiration. I was a poor girl and didn’t have the money to buy a copy of her latest book, but I joined the line at the public event in the hope I could just get a moment with her. My turn arrived, so I approached the table, probably stumbled over some words or spoke too rapidly, forgot to inhale, communicating just what her work meant to me. She took my hands, a kind, steadying gesture, and one I won’t forget. She thanked me, and I told her I was also a writer, that I loved her work, and she asked about me too. Finally, she wished me luck and even signed notebook with “Suerte” and a heart.

This was before social media, but fangirling has been around far longer than widespread internet, if by other names. These moments may pass unregarded, sentiments tweeted or expressed in comments on Instagram or in a Tumblr reblog, may be ephemeral. Yet, being interested in someone’s work or having shared interests, especially if those interests elicit similar emotional responses, these are the types of connections that, with some degree of luck and circumstance, may last long term. For an artist, a show of support may be more meaningful than a fan will ever know directly, and there’s nothing lost in expressing it.

There’s nothing like meeting someone else who was a total stranger to you yesterday, then discussing a shared interest, fandom you both follow, your tears over a death or development in the series that made an impression on both of you. Sometimes that ends in a hug and staying in touch. Sometimes these very interactions expand your whole universe. Devaluing the rich variety of channels we have these days to connect with one another comes across as extremely shortsighted. Criticizing positivity and happy messages, even simple supportive posts and tweets of approval, which can be very gratifying, just seems like sour conduct. This isn’t a case of sycophants, but mostly seems like harmless positive expression and declaring someone or something they have done is valuable.

It’s certainly better than a slew of articles suggesting women hate one another. We’re individuals, and some of us like to express our positivity. Would I still be a writer had Julia Alvarez not been so kind to the awkward teenager before her? Yes, I think so, but that memory, the positivity of that experience stays with me. So does the support I received from some friends I met who, shortly after I joined a shared online group, listened to and helped me through an issue that took months of frustration to resolve. It was an unexpectedly strong treasure to find at that time in my life, and these friendships have lasted.

So, yes, I’m on the positivity train. If someone is hurting or going through something, I try to offer words, at minimum, but sometimes gushing openly about how awesome someone is could lift both of your days. Even tweeting to someone you respect, engaging with them, might lead somewhere. You never know. Being excited about things, feeling joy, gratitude, and inspiration, these are some of life’s finest moments. Should receiving them intersect with moments of despair, loneliness, or loss, there’s a special kind of hope in these connections that is likely as old as humanity.

Sometimes it feels like joy is looked down upon, shamed, or discouraged. When something is clearly meant to be enjoyable, it’s often disparaged as being of poor quality or not meaningful. Down with that. Meaningful doesn’t have to take huge effort and because of that, tell someone she’s awesome today. And tomorrow. And so on. It will feel great.

We Have Always Been Here

This anonymous Ask over on the Why I Need Diverse Games Tumblr has already received strong responses from many, but I felt strongly enough to add a short one of my own.

“Geekdom is the only place where socially shunned males can be save and be themselves [sic]”, it begins. Then, the asker attempts to utilize concepts like “safe space” in order to, ultimately, justify attacks and harassment with language that takes a militaristic tone. Couching the defensiveness of a growing mainstream audience in such language is a glimpse of how some folks feel – that broadening the reach of certain types of media belongs to some finite pool of attention that will be bestowed upon those who share their taste. “So when women,” the asker continues, “who exclude them outside geek culture, invade those save spaces and force the scene to conform to their wants and rules they leave the men with nowhere to go. Where can they flee?”

First of all, women have always been a part of geek spaces. A woman is considered the inventor of computer programming. A woman wrote what is regarded as the first sci-fi novel (Frankenstein). Women have been gaming and creating games for decades. One year, a comics shop opened next to my local movie theater. An afternoon matinee and time in the comics shop, especially if I had a few bucks from babysitting in my pocket, was a wonderful way to spend the day. Star Trek movies were even on the marquee at times. I attended dressed in a Starfleet Academy shirt as yes, a socially awkward teenage girl. I liked other awkward geeks, for friendship and romance. We had shared interests, just enough to make it interesting, and just different enough to learn from one another.

After a couple of decades playing video games, growing up with sci-fi and fantasy, and counting Star Trek as an influence on my life, I’m not seeking to ‘qualify’ or gain any sort of geek cred, but others in my life who also enjoyed many of these things were other girls. We have always been here. We’re not invaders, anonymous, and I understand the perception and socialization that leads to ostracism and feeling alone as a geeky person, but try stepping out and defining yourself outside of products you consume.

But anyone, regardless of gender, should have safe spaces, real ones, and using the idea of gatekeeping to attempt to justify harassment just falls apart in the doing. Gatekeeping is simply never okay. It’s a much richer experience to have broader, more inclusive, and more diverse options.You might discover something unexpected or even meet some good, kind, and talented folks with a more open mind. Might even surprise yourself.

There is also no limit on how much art can be created. Only so much of it is commercial. Seek out new experiences, enjoy the art, games, and writing created by other fans whose creative energy presses against their mind, fingers, or very selves, and must simply get out into the world and be born, shared, and lived.  Put down your weapons, including your pride.Art isn’t finite. No one is invading anything. The more variety and more choice we have is a good thing.

Behind House of Cards, Much is Lacking


Note: the following is based on seasons 1 & 2 of Netflix’ House of Cards and refers to minor plot details:

“Bad guy wins” can be a satisfactory outcome of something….but if the rest isn’t good, if there’s no one to root for, if there’s nothing to invest you in the plot or characters, then it ultimately fails, and that’s why this show fails. Any sympathetic characters are either written paper thin, as complete suggestible fools, or just cannon fodder for Frank Underwood’s mustache-twirling, fourth wall-breaking, cartoon villain. The high production values, prestige, high-profile fans, and award attention might make you believe there’s something less hollow at the core, but that isn’t the case.

“Bad guy wins” works when there’s something to make you care. But there’s no one of any significance to empathize with around for too long. Characters you might root for flit in and out as long as they might be somewhat useful for Underwood to use and manipulate. They’re not there to have a background or agency of their own or to make us care–and that’s the central problem. The Underwoods, in their ambition, will steamroll over anyone, and for characters like that to chew scenes, you need cannon fodder. Lots of it. Characters that try to act with sympathy or empathy are quickly taken advantage of and disposed of nearly as fast, sometimes thrown a bit of plotline before being cut loose, murdered, or otherwise left in the wake of the main character. Sometimes characters we haven’t seen in a while are trotted out for an episode or two just to be manipulated or used against others and then summarily tossed away.

I know many that are enjoying the newly-released season three, but there’s no reward in this show for a viewer like me. Not all shows can appeal to every potential viewer. The best moments of House of Cards come when Frank shows what little humanity he has left tucked away inside, and not for personal gain. The eighth episode of season one, where he spends a night drinking and socializing with his old college buddies (including one he had feelings for) is the best episode of the series. The moment where he tries to show restraint and genuine caring toward ribs restaurant owner and friend, Freddy, only to be deterred by ambition, also gave us a glimpse of actual human being under the cold villain at the show’s core.

Cold is a good word to describe House of Cards itself. If you’re looking to watch and enjoy an ambitious, manipulative villain step on everyone’s backs with little to stop him, this might be your kind of show. I look for people to care about in the movies and shows I watch, and the qualities Frank Underwood possesses are entirely off-putting to me personally. Without someone or more than a few someones to consistently root for or care about throughout the show’s run, it simply begins to ring hollow and wear thin. It leaves me cold. If a meteor struck these people, I wouldn’t care. And that, to me, is a sign that something big is missing.

New York Made History Last Night

I think, no matter where you stand on the political or religious spectrum, it’s likely that most us have loved ones–family and friends–who are LGBT. The way I see it, by accident of birth, I have legal rights when it comes to love (that basic of tricky, wonderful, painful, enlightening, maddening things) that some of my fellow New Yorkers were denied until last night. Religious groups got extra protections to make sure that they may still run their organizations according to their faiths, and New Yorkers became more equal. There will be more jobs here due to this legislation. We will welcome more tourists. All New Yorkers will benefit somehow. And all it took was bipartisan leadership, state senators listening to what constituents wanted in the state, and careful deliberation. It’s easy to be jaded with the political system sometimes. And other times, it actually works.

“No Girls Allowed” – Chicken or the Egg?

I wanted to comment on the recent piece “No Girls Allowed” by Lydia Heitman over at Kotaku. Heitman is a woman working in gaming PR. Her take on the PR side of the business in light of the sexism that still goes on made some refreshing points. For all the insistence that gaming is male-dominated and that’s where companies should focus their marketing, it becomes a chicken and egg question. Do women not play as much in certain categories because they’re uninterested or do they not play as much in those genres because they feel unwelcome or are simply not marketed to?

That holds true for recent controversies over not just Duke Nukem Forever, but Brink, which touted its extensive character customization options but featured no female character models at all, supposedly because including them would’ve half-assed the development on all customization options. The message there was simply, “You’re not worth it to us”. Unfortunately, not all signs of being unwelcome are so blatant nor communicated with gamers at large.

There are also focus groups for which women are never even considered for invitation. I understand that there are target demographics for different games, and the audience is not necessarily the same for Hello Kitty Online as for Age of Conan (though in my case, they are). But as far apart as those extreme examples are, they are just that: extremes. Somewhere in the middle, there are many games and potential game ideas that could have much wider appeal than people think at the concept and marketing stages. Developers and publishers are throwing away potential money by ignoring the needs of customers and potential customers. Blatantly saying female avatars aren’t worth the development sink is a slap in the face. It turns me off to anything developed by Splash Damage. Brilliant marketing work there, isn’t it? Any company that says to me, you are not worth even considering isn’t worth considering when it comes to where I send my money.

The default marketing target is usually a young, white male customer. According to the EGSA, the average gamer is now 37 years old, and women comprise over 40% of the audience. There is still a sense of elitism and an insistence on looking down on those one might not consider “real” gamers among pockets of the community at large. If that’s the case when the audience numbers are actually heading toward parity,  when most developers are still overwhelmingly white and male, perhaps there are remants of similar biases among them. The example Heitman uses about the party illustrates that facet of things well.

My sister is seven years old. Whatever she chooses to play shold be open to her, with devs and community willing to listen and respond positively to their female audience members. But the issue is not just applicable to current customers. Games are art to me, but they are also a busess. Part of running a successful business is drawing more customers into the fold. And as Heitman’s piece and examples like Brink illustrate, there are still a lot of blocks to that, whether because those in charge of marketing the games can’t wrap their head around women’s interest in their titles, lingering culture issues, or both. On a somewhat brighter note, most girls now grow up playing games, so the importance of acceptance by devs and by gamers is hopefully something that will be less of an issue in years to come.

On the Pulled Yoplait Ad

General Mills pulled a commercial for Yoplait yogurt because it was potentially triggering to those with eating disorders

The ad in question:

I felt it was reflective of a bad relationship with food, but unfortunately one that many women are familiar with. Eating, that very thing involved in our sustenance, becomes something that we judge our worth on because of social pressures. We bargain with ourselves like the woman in the commercial, and for some people, that can lead into dangerous territory. The thing is, there is no “bad” food if it fits into an overall healthy eating plan. So if she wanted the cheesecake, she should’ve eaten a reasonable sized slice and enjoyed it. No matter how many chemical flavoring agents you dump into an artificially sweetened yogurt, it will never be cheesecake. It may taste vaguely of cheesecake, but when you are craving cheesecake, flavor is but one element to consider.

Now, I say “women” here, but I am aware of the men who are also dealing with disordered eating (often more secretly). This ad, however, is squarely aimed at women (as is almost all yogurt marketing). Promoting lower calorie and healthier food choices is a good thing, but doing it like this is not. Just a bad message for some (obsessive thinking) and  it’s responsible of the company to pull it.

Farewell to The Matrix Online

The game was released buggy, like many MMOs. Yet at the same time, the devs tended to be receptive to feedback. Regardless, the game underperformed in the end, despite the love that went into The Matrix Online. Sales numbers were not as predicted or hoped for, and the number of retained subscribers  dipped very low.

The game had a ton of faults, and a lot of missed potential, but when it comes to who dropped the ball, I would have to place more blame on Monolith/WBIE for selling the property off to SOE. Now that said, SOE put effort into the game but it was never treated as a star property. One might say, with good reason, noting the underperforming history as above. They had to keep profitable.

But MxO was Monolith’s baby and the devs and designers there worked hard on it. They had a good launch strategy, and the first four or five months after release were truly great stuff. Live Events were plentiful, characters would drop in and greet you outside mission areas, the story was immersive and included the players in the action. There were three factions fighting for control, as well as splinter groups. Updates were pretty frequent and robust at first: full cinematics voiced by the original film actors. The events that they held and the LET appearances really helped tie the community together. One really felt like a part of something. But of course, back to those numbers again — it just wasn’t financially sustainable.

The sale to SOE gave the game a longer life, but also a slow death. Fully rendered cinematics gave way to comic book format animation and, finally, to some drawn, barely animated storyboards that were hard to make out. Major characters were killed off or otherwise removed (likely as a way to save money), and there were few development updates.  There were some new spawns and gear, but items from past events or storylines, such as a helicpoter dropping propaganda papers, were left in the game long after the missions for that chapter were over. For the most part, the game just hung on as something for Station Pass holders to jump into now and then.

I doubt there will be another like it for some time — urban, smart, featuring an abundance of modern clothing options and styles, and filled with a mix of philosophy, supernatural elements, lots of places to enter and secrets to uncover, and a very unique playerbase full of extremely dedicated individuals. And in the beginning, the Live Events team played it well, and created the most memorable MMORPG experience I have had so far. It was fun, but sadly, the game did not realize its potential at all.