Why racist, nasty comments are better than none at all

Above the Law is a tabloid blog where the legal community comes to get news and gossip — and to say terrible things about one another. Many of the reader comments on the site are so mean or hurtful that they make notorious troll forums like Gawker feel like a petting zoo. And the Above the Law staff wouldn’t have it any other way.

At a time when many publishers are trying to improve comments or else refuse to permit reader participation in the first place, Above the Law — which is a must-read for many lawyers and even judges — continues to let readers be as abrasive as they like. For example, here’s a screenshot of responses to a story by editor Elie Mystal about a scholarship for white people at Columbia:

Screenshot of above the law

I spoke this month with Mystal and John Lerner, CEO of Breaking Media (the company that owns Above the Law), to learn more about the site’s comment philosophy and its effect on business strategy.

“If you write on the internet, people will say horrible things about you. We allow them to say it to our faces — if we didn’t, they’d say it on Twitter or Reddit or Tumblr,” said Mystal. “Anyone who wants to write professionally better be prepared for ad hominem, unfair personal criticism. That’s not just part of media in 2013.”

Above the Law’s writers, most of whom are Ivy League law school graduates, are frequent targets of personal vitriol by readers, but Mystal says he still appreciates them.

“Commenters got me my job. Online people voted me in. I remember that when they’re screaming about how I look like a walrus.”

The commenters also serve as a vital part of the site’s overall content and business strategy. Lerner explained that the story comments appear as separate web pages, which allows Above the Law to sell additional ads, and that the site also works with comment platform Disqus to sell sponsored comments on its app. And, contrary to popular wisdom, advertisers aren’t skittish about their brands appearing next to off-color stories (like this one about a lawyer who invoked the First Amendment to excuse “slut-shaming” someone who turned him down) – a quick look shows that most of ATL’s sponsors are big and boring professional firms.

“It’s not like five years ago when a lot of advertisers didn’t know how the internet works,” said Mystal. “They realize there’s horrible comments on the Washington Post too.”

Above the Law readers can flag comments as offensive but that doesn’t mean the editors will respond. The only thing likely to be pulled down is something that offends absolutely everybody — “no one one cares if you’re offended”, says Mystal, adding that moderating each comment would be a full time job.

Ultimately, the no-holds-barred policy is not just simpler for the editors to oversee, but may also offer a more authentic view of humanity than the curated comments of other forums:

“I used to work in a big firm in downtown Manhattan, and there were some racists there. We’re the legal community, and there’s people who hold racist, homophobic views — you’re going to meet people like that. Those people may be your boss.”

(Image by ArTono via Shutterstock)