Eva Holland | Longreads | February 2015 | 10 minutes (2,458 words)
Ta-Nehisi Coates started blogging for The Atlantic on August 4, 2008. His first post was titled “Sullivan… McArdle… Fallows… Coates???” and it laid down his terms from the start: “My only rule, really, is simple,” he wrote. “Don’t be a jerk to people you disagree with.” He’d been hired to fill the slot left in the magazine’s roster of bloggers by Matt Yglesias, and he addressed how he’d be coming at the role differently. “Matt has a fairly amazing ability to comment, from a left perspective, on a wide range of issues… Knowing my own limits, I’ll take a different tack. On things I’m not so sure on, I’ll state my opinion rather gingerly and then hope my commenters can fill in the gaps.”
The blog would soon be widely lauded for the keenness and clarity of its ideas, the power of its language, and for its unexpected ability to host real, substantive conversations in the comments—an extreme rarity on big-name websites. Coates, then a relatively unknown writer, would go on to win a 2013 National Magazine Award for “Fear of a Black President,” an essay published in The Atlantic’s print edition, while a selection of nine posts from his blog would be named a 2014 finalist in the National Magazine Awards’ “columns and commentary” category.
So how did Coates foster a comment section in which—wonder of wonders—intelligent adults thoughtfully share ideas and knowledge, and where trolling, rudeness and bad faith aren’t tolerated? I asked Coates and other players in the blog’s success—editors, moderators and commenters—to look back on what makes it work.
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Coates joined The Atlantic’s roster of bloggers in the heat of the 2008 election season, and the race between John McCain and Barack Obama was the focus of many of his early posts. Another blogger who was preoccupied with the battle was Andrew Sullivan, whose Daily Dish was still hosted by The Atlantic at the time, and many of Coates’ early commenters arrived by way of a link from his more established labelmate. Impressed by the quality of the writing and the comments, they came back again and again, enjoying not just the possibility of interacting in a sane, constructive way with each other, but with Coates too. He often appeared in the comments: clarifying his point of view, responding to criticism, and acknowledging when others had a point.
For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the nature of his forum was a deliberate choice from the outset. “I wanted a comment section that I wanted to read,” he told me. As an African American, he said, he was turned off by the naked racism that was routinely permitted to stand below most political blogs. His gaming background also played into his vision of the comments and the blog posts as a cohesive whole, an ongoing discussion. The comments, he believed, should be part of the content.
Beyond the ongoing political coverage, Coates quickly began to establish some of the blog’s secondary themes and enthusiasms: music, poetry, football, comic books and Dungeons & Dragons. All the while, the ranks of regular commenters were growing—and they were becoming an essential part of the whole project: Coates frequently highlighted particular insights, pulling them into blog posts of their own, and, as he’d promised from the start, he increasingly turned to the commenters for information about areas he didn’t know well—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for instance. Blog posts sometimes consisted entirely of a request for input in the comments.
The rules of the space were evolving, too. Trolling was verboten, and commenters were discouraged from responding to people who were obviously looking to provoke; he didn’t want the discussion devolving into an un-resolvable argument. (The blog’s homegrown etiquette was later codified in what became known as the “dinner party rules.”) As the blog grew in popularity, Coates’ reminders about bad behavior became more frequent; repeat offenders were banned, and sometimes, he had to resort to closing comments on a post entirely.
But the hard line was also part of the appeal. Commenter Stephen Matlock, who initially went by the handle “BetweenTwoWorlds” before reverting to his real name, recalled: “Having an honest, adult engagement with Coates was bracing. So was the general sense that people told the truth, or were sent packing. People who came in to disrupt were reprimanded and then blocked, even banned, and their digressions deleted—along with all the people, including me, who jumped in to correct. Coates tried again and again to get us to leave the people posting in bad faith alone. I was a bad student, who took many lessons to learn, but eventually I got better.”
By late 2008, threads could stretch into hundreds of comments, and threadjacking and derailing was becoming an increasing problem (although often, the digressions were as informative and worthwhile as the on-topic comments). To compensate for keeping people strictly on task in the regular threads, Coates started posting open threads—sometimes for a specific event, like an NFL game or the Mad Men season finale, and sometimes as a pure free-for-all. Those threads were where the regulars started to really get to know each other, and develop their own shorthand, nicknames, and inside jokes. Somewhere along the way, the commenters adopted the name “Golden Horde” for themselves, while Coates, in the group vernacular, became “the Khan.”
In April 2009, the open threads were formalized into a daily event: the Open Thread at Noon, or OTAN for short. That’s when Bob Cohn, then the top digital editor and now The Atlantic’s president and COO, began to take note. “I first clued in to the real power of his platform when he began writing posts at lunchtime headlined: ‘Open Thread at Noon.’ The entire text of the post that followed was: ‘It’s yours….’ That’s all,” Cohn says. “Within minutes, the Horde began talking among themselves—about politics, about football, about hip hop, about race, about videogames, and, often, about Ta-Nehisi himself. He simply declared his comments thread open for business, and everyone flocked. He could get hundreds of comments in the first hour. That’s when I knew he had built something special.”
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The best proof of the caliber of comments and commenters that Coates’ blog attracted is probably the story of Cynic. “Cynic” was the handle adopted by Yoni Appelbaum, then a PhD student at Brandeis University, when he started commenting during the 2008 election run-up. His comments were unfailingly thorough, thoughtful and respectful, and Coates often flagged his contributions in follow-up posts.
Then, as Appelbaum recalls it, Coates contacted him “because he had deduced that I was a historian,” and he had some questions that related to his own historical work. They began to keep in touch outside the comment section, and in June 2010, Coates asked Appelbaum to turn a long comment he’d posted about Ulysses S. Grant into a standalone blog post. That one post was followed by a guest-blogging stint for Appelbaum—still identified only as “Cynic.” Not too long after that, Appelbaum was recruited right out of the comment section, and given a steady role—and a proper byline—as an online contributor to The Atlantic.
“In March 2011, my phone rang. And it was Bob Cohn of The Atlantic,” Appelbaum says. “That’s not a phone call you can really turn away. So I started contributing regularly then.”
Last month, after nearly three years of writing for the site, Appelbaum got another promotion: once a pseudonymous commenter, he’s now the full-time Politics Editor for The Atlantic’s digital operation.
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Throughout 2010, 2011 and 2012, the blog continued to grow in popularity and in profile. The OTANs were a fixture, and the group added other recurring items: a regular Mad Men thread, and an online book club focused on the history of the Civil War, dubbed the “Effete Liberal Book Club.” The longtime Horde members had also created a private forum for themselves elsewhere on the web; meet-ups were occurring across the country, and “meatspace”—that is, offline—relationships were being formed.
The Atlantic published Coates’ “Fear of a Black President” in the September 2012 issue, and in May 2013 the essay won a National Magazine Award. In a blog post written the day after the awards gala, Coates gave partial credit to the Horde for the piece’s development and eventual success:
“If you crawl back through the archives of early to mid 2012, you will find me writing this story, on this blog, with some assistance from you. (The Trayvon coverage, for instance.) If you crawl even further back to the summer of 2010, you can find me writing this story with some assistance from you. (The Shirley Sherrod coverage, for instance.) And if you crawl back to the archives of 2008, you will see the same thing.
“This space is my notebook. But in the borders and outside the margins you can see the added scribblings and post-its authored by The Horde.”
“Fear of a Black President” was a turning point, both for Coates’ writing career and for the comment section on his blog. “After ‘Fear of a Black President,’” Coates told me, “more people started coming, and that kind of ruined things, weirdly enough. It made it a lot harder to regulate.” His success had made him a target not just for larger numbers of people unused to minding their online manners, but to a hard core of persistent trolls who surfaced on seemingly every race-related post. In February 2013, Coates and The Atlantic brought on two longtime commenters, Sandy Young and Kathleen Bachynski, as moderators to help Coates keep the comments on track. It was an increasingly tough job.
“The experience of being a moderator was complex,” Sandy Young says now, “since Disqus [The Atlantic’s commenting system] lacks the ability to simply moderate one writer’s posts. I had the power to delete and ban site-wide. I would have preferred not to have it—but when I encountered posts that were vile—racist, sexist, or just downright threatening, I’d think ‘Aw crap. I don’t want to be that guy who tries to fix the Internet, but people I know and care about are going to see this and be insulted or hurt by it. What should I do? I have this power—should I use it or not?’”
Coates, meanwhile, was blogging less and less. In contrast to the years when he posted three, four or five items daily, in 2014 he published fewer than 100 items, although many were long and heavily researched. (2014 also saw the publication, in the June issue, of “The Case For Reparations,” Coates’ monster follow-up to “Fear of a Black President.” It was a finalist in the essays and criticism category at the 2015 National Magazine Awards.)
He doesn’t sound optimistic about the future of the comment section. Instead, he sounds tired: of deleting and banning trolls, of trying to police and curb an online community’s worst—and, it often seems, most natural—instincts, all in the name of a goal he doesn’t feel he’s ever achieved. “To be honest, I can’t say how long this will go on for,” he told me, addressing the possibility that he might someday close comments entirely, like his colleague James Fallows. “It never quite became what I wanted it to be. I never really figured out how to get people from different perspectives in a place without defaulting to these usual conversations.”
Sandy Young, who’s since turned in his keys to the “ban” and “delete” buttons and stepped back from moderation, agrees that the comment section’s golden era is likely in the past. “I think ‘The Horde’ as it might describe a bunch of us actively participating in public online discussions was a rare and wonderful moment in time,” he said. “I don’t think it will continue… [and] I don’t think it can be replicated easily. [Coates] has moved on to a wider audience, which he absolutely deserves. But the Horde had already begun to become a more private place.”
For Yoni Appelbaum, there were two things that made the Horde so valuable. The first was the sheer range of backgrounds its members emerged from: the group spanned age, race, class, gender identity, occupation, education, and nearly every other variable. “So some of its value and some of the potential of any comment section was its ability to get people talking to each other who might not otherwise inhabit the same spaces, might not share the same assumptions, and to see what happens when they engage each other in good faith.” The second, he says, was the way in which Coates “made himself genuinely vulnerable. It wasn’t a selfless act… He wanted to learn everything that he could and understood that admitting the limits of his own knowledge was perhaps the best way to encourage others to engage constructively with him and with each other. That’s something I can’t do nearly as well as he does, but it may be the most valuable thing I learned there.”
Comments are still open, occasionally, on some of Coates’ blog posts, but the longtime commenters now tend to refer to the comment section in the past tense. If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth. For years, the Horde gave me hope for a better internet, but these days I tend to believe that comment sections are just tumors on otherwise good journalism, and that we’d all be better off without them.
Before it was undermined by its own success, though, this one helped to launch Coates as a national writer whose incisive work on race in America is built to last longer than any online community. As one commenter, Daniel Aaron Spivack, put it: “The Horde on the steppes may not be the same as they once were, but the Khan is still going strong.”
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Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory. She writes mainly about life in the rapidly changing North.