Last week a debate was kicked off in a post by Ella Dawson about the role of Genius, the website annotating service. Dawson explains that she was very careful about where and when she allowed comments on her posts because of the nature of what she writes about and spends a lot of time moderating those comments that do come in. Genius, on the other hand, is a tool that allows anyone to add any sort of notes or comments on top of and alongside any post or page on the web.
Mathew Ingram at Fortune has a good take on this issue and how it relates to online harassment, which is the crux of Dawson’s issues with how this played out. But to me it gets even more fundamental into who controls the on-domain experience.
If I set up a site and decide to limit conversations by either turning off comments or limiting them to X days that’s my choice based on what I feel is best for my site and my content. That could be because there’s just too much, because the tone of the comments is unacceptable in some way or just because that’s not what I’m trying to do here. While we can all long to return to the halcyon days of wide open commenting and other on-domain engagement, there are legitimate reasons for some site owners, be they individuals or big media owners, to turn off comments.
Genius, though, takes that decision out of the manager’s hands. It says “No, the decision you’ve made is wrong” regardless of the motivations behind that decision. But no one company knows best, no matter how noble their intentions. It’s indicative of the tech world today, though, since the idea here is to “disrupt” an existing model with a one size fits all tool that does as much harm as good.
There’s a valuable role a tool like Genius can play in the world of media or with something like scientific research papers, where additional comments can really add context and flavor to the original piece. But it has to be in a system where the site owner either opts-in or can more effectively opt out. Otherwise the potential for abuse, both of the technology and of the content creators, is too high. And the last thing we need is for more voices to be silenced because they don’t feel comfortable or safe.