This summer, Above the Law (“ATL”) will turn ten. The web has changed a great deal in the past decade, and ATL has evolved along with it.
One area where we’ve seen a lot of change: reader comments. In the early days of ATL, especially before the Great Recession, the comments were amazing.
I don’t think “amazing” means what you think it does. Aside from the mad rush to comment “First!!!,” they tended to be nasty, snarky and critical. Which didn’t mean they weren’t often funny, and on target. But the cries of more serious readers with more sensitive feelings were heard, and so comments were eventually hidden behind a wall, so virgin eyes wouldn’t have to see the vulgar language.
A single story could get hundreds of comments, most of them substantive, thoughtful, and related to the subject matter of the story. Yes, the comments could sometimes be edgy or offensive — which is why in January 2009 we tweaked our layout to hide them, requiring the reader to affirmatively click into them – but the value they brought to the table outweighed the offense.
Well, it’s not quite clear how comments could be “substantive, thoughtful and related to the subject matter of the story” (what I refer to as “on topic”) since the content of the day was largely limited to judicially exposed breasts and Biglaw bonuses, ATL’s bread and butter. ATL reflected that slice of the legal web, which is how it came to prominence.
While SJ came into existence about a year later, it was pointed in an entirely different direction. ATL’s readers weren’t SJ readers, though there was the occasional overlap. ATL gained a far broader audience, because T&A snark is of far broader interest than criminal law.
This formed the basis for David Lat’s worst decision ever, combined with having to give up his day job as Assistant United States Attorney under New Jersey’s big guy when it was revealed that he was Article III Groupie. He took his audience and monetized it. Hey, he had to make a living too, but he sold his soul in the process. It was a sad day for the blawgosphere. I wonder if he would take it all back if he could.
Since then, ATL went from salacious snark to filling up the screen with any insipid nonsense someone would write for $50 a throw. And it has since morphed into a confused state of occasional snark and Social Justice for the terminally whiny.
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).
The comments are pretty much the same as they once were, though it’s true that the inside jokes become more embedded. Total traffic is an interesting metric, as ATL survives off past glory and a certain skill and shamelessness at crafting clickbait headlines. When you’re running a business, it doesn’t matter why people click, only that people click.
But that doesn’t provide any explanation for why, out of nowhere, comments got the “end of life” bullet.
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.
Yeah, well, ATL isn’t Wired, and unlike Wired, ATL was largely limited to law students and lawyers rather than the mean, nasty, ignorant groundlings that others had to deal with. ATL’s commentariat were, of course, mean and nasty, but they were not exactly ignorant.
Inspired by these sites, ATL will also be eliminating comments, effective tomorrow. Since December 2011, individual writers have had the option of turning off comments on individual stories – and many columnists already exercise this option on all of their posts – so this is not as large a change as it might seem. We are simply replacing a discretionary approach with an across-the-board policy.
Inspired? Not exactly a persuasive rationale. The “many columnists” who turned off comments might be better defined as the worst dreck available on the interwebs. This was seriously vapid garbage, and the comments would rip the shit out of them because they were beyond awful. But if they got enough clicks to justify the $50 per post, so what? And even stupid posts attract readers. Stupid readers, sure, but aren’t stupid people entitled to read what they want?
With this, ATL goes for the Hail, Mary of click come-ons:
[W]e welcome your engagement with our content on social media. Please take our stories and share them – on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or your social-media platform of choice – and add your own commentary. We love it when our stories inspire a lively discussion on someone’s Facebook wall or on Twitter — and we find that these exchanges tend to be civil and substantive.
Spread out among the heathens, ATL readers, and preach the gospel of ATL, with links back so you’re working as ATL missionaries and bring home new clicks! Can’t blame ATL for trying. Even if comments are so worthless that ATL has killed them, they’re so wonderful that you should do them elsewhere. Slick move, right?
But the attitude of the social justice warriors who now comprise the core of ATL toward the commentariat is made clear by the pseudonymous Shannon Achimalbe:
Hello commenters. I created this profile just to say goodbye. Or we can talk at Twitter although I admit I don’t use it that often.
First of all, shame on you for not creating a Privileged Pierce avatar.
It’s nice to know that my column is one of the most frequently commented on ATL. It’s hard to describe the special feeling I get when I stay up until 3-4AM writing every piece only to see you people rip it to shreds the next morning. I’m going to miss it.
But I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to interact with you folks. Since I am anonymous, I didn’t care too much for the feedback. Once in a while you were master debaters. But the rest of the time, you were jerk offs. In any case, I thought my piece would be a “safe space” where disgruntled current solos and small law folks can air out their frustrations in the comments section. But no one was interested and you people unfortunately abused it.
I’m sorry that I didn’t provide any useful advice for you. But others have found it useful and told me that via email, twitters and side conversations I see on online message boards. And to know that once a week, I help make someone smile or feel better makes this all worth it.
With that said, see ya and I wouldn’t want to be ya.
The old commentariat, crude and nasty as it may have been, was the last remaining vestige of the original ATL. And now it’s gone. Whether the new ATL, the Social Justice ATL, will have legs remains to be seen. Whether it makes Shannon “feel better” isn’t the business model. It’s all about clicks and ad revenue and keeping a business alive in a changing market.
But ATL? The old ATL. The ATL that owned the legal blogosphere? It’s gone. Farewell to the comments. And farewell to Above the Law as we knew and loved it. What this means for me, I don’t really know, but damn if I don’t feel very lonely today.