News & Politics

I Met My Website’s Commenters. And I Kind of…Like Them?

A former DCist editor meets her toughest (and most persistent) critics.

One of the main rules for internet writers is “never read the comments.” I’ve always had trouble following it. Far more often than I’d like to admit, I’ve found myself scrolling past the bottom of a story to see how readers reacted. But on a rainy Thursday evening this month, I went a step further: I met the commenters.

I used to be the associate editor of DCist before its billionaire owner abruptly shut it down in early November. In two years, I wrote 1,669 stories for the local news site, many of which the blog’s self-described “commentariat” festooned with ribbons of snark and GIFs.

The commitment of these commenters was astonishing. Many of them have been at it for more than a decade. I quickly learned that they have their own slang and visual language, in addition to monthly happy hours where they kibbitz in real life.

Ted Leonsis and Flying Dog Brewery have praised them. Writers often felt differently. Former DCist editor Ben Freed  arguably got it worst of all: they warned one another via GIF—generally a flopping fish or a siren image—when we included his stories for other publications in our roundups, which they view as a way to starve him of clicks. (The antipathy is mutual.) But there was a sadder fate available to DCist writers: Sometimes posts got no comments at all.

I was always curious the people behind the screen names like sock puppet mayhem, OwCrapThatHurts, and B!tchIt’sSaturday. They may have been a tiny slice of the website’s audience but we knew them all. And, to be totally honest, they were often pretty funny. So I pledged that when I left DCist I would go to one of those commentariat happy hours. As fate would have it, DCist left me first.

And so it was that the week after DCist shuttered, I arrived at Bar Charley and headed to the back, where I knew the commenters were gathered. There was about a dozen people there, and, in one of my life’s more surreal moments, they all started clapping for me as I walked through the door.

One by one, they introduced themselves using both their real names and their commenter names. They ranged in age from what looked like late twenties to early fifties, were evenly split gender-wise, mostly white, and all looked…normal.

“Can you believe that we’re real people?” one of them asked me with a grin.

Over the past two years, I had gotten a sense of their daily rhythms (up early), their likes (animals) and dislikes (people they deemed as attention-seeking), which topics might cause an explosion of conversation (any ranking), and the GIFs they’d use if we posted the morning links roundup late (generally an impatient Judge Judy that has made several appearances in my anxiety dreams).

“Sometimes, I wonder if you remember that we’re real people,” I said.

It’s demoralizing to work your ass off on a story only to scroll down and find a sea of dismissive GIFs, or have people who literally spend all damn day on the website talking about how dumb it is or how lazy its writers are.

One of the times I remember feeling most incensed was during what turned out to be DCist’s last day in operation, though I didn’t know that in the moment. I had just published an article about where else people could find local news, aside from us (the irony of all this is not lost on me).

“So everywhere but DCist?” said a commenter named DCTransplant (who clearly didn’t read the first sentences of the story, I screamed into the void). Another, TripleE, wrote something about how these were all the sources DCist used to “repackage” others’ reporting.

We did aggregation, sure. But how could anyone who visits the site with the frequency of the commenters not see that we also broke news and covered important stories that no other publication did? Sensing how angry I was, my boss, Rachel Sadon, entered the comment fray (an incredibly rare occurrence) with the written equivalent of an eyebrow raise, and the commenter responded with a chastened GIF.

About an hour into the happy hour, I figured out who that commenter was.

“Fuck you!” I screamed at him. I wasn’t entirely serious, but I wasn’t joking either. It felt good to look him in the eye and explain exactly why his little missive was so off-base. Typing it would have felt petty but in person, I was emboldened by a few Old Fashioneds and some heady slurps of a blazing tiki drink. (There’s no tiki drink sweeter than the one purchased for you by the people who belittle your work on a regular basis.)

He apologized and we hugged. The whole exchange actually made me feel better, something I’ve never said about an online exchange with a troll.

But I wouldn’t characterize the DCist commentariat as trolls, at least not all the time. Part of the reason I read the comments was because they were often helpful, noticing grammatical or factual errors that we missed, for instance. One commenter picked up on my obsession with prehensile-tailed porcupettes, and has taken to sending me news about them. It’s awesome.

Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but because the group was so sparing with compliments, getting a bunch of “Great story” or “Good reporting” underneath a post really touched me.

Even at its worst, the DCist commentariat is nothing like the cesspools I’ve experienced on other sites. I appeared in a series of Youtube videos and saw commenters trying to decide whether they wanted to jerk off to me. At DCist, if someone even mentioned my appearance, a commenter would promptly send along a GIF of the kid from Modern Family getting sprayed with a water bottle. They don’t take well to explicit racism, either.

“We would refer to them as WTOP trolls—that’s an example of a comment section that’s gone straight down the gutter and into the sewer,” says Kittyliteral, a 51-year-old analyst for an education nonprofit who started commenting on the site in 2008. (Citing conversations that “devolved into sometimes hateful and racist dialogue,” WTOP turned off its comments section this past February.)

Kittyliteral says she joined in because she noticed the commenters “seemed pretty engaging and witty and snarky in a way that fits my sense of humor.” Now, nearly a decade later, she says that “this is the smartest group of people that I know. It’s like a bunch of friends hanging out in a bar and just riffing on each other.”

John Fleury began commenting in 2007 and stayed below the jump for about four years before transitioning into a writer for the site, where he blogged about beer. “The thing that drew me in the most was the high-level shit-talking,” he says. “There’s some real high-grade shit-talking that you just don’t see anywhere else, certainly not in hyperlocal news.” Fleury largely stopped commenting after he became a writer, though he continued to respond to comments on his posts.

One 39-year-old federal worker tells me he came to the DCist comment boards in 2012 after he was banned from Prince of Petworth (“I’m still angry about that because it was completely unwarranted, but whatever,” he says). He has switched up his commenting name a few times, though we knew him best as PoopieFace.

“We feel like we can talk to each other because we’re on the same page,” he says. “We both like and hate a lot of the same things: we’re boozers, we like good food, we like fuzzy animals, we complain about the same stuff.”

PoopieFace says that the commenters’ online personalities are slightly more embellished versions of their IRL-selves. “I’m probably a little more snarky online than in real life—it’s not like I’m pulling a Sasha Fierce or anything.”

Kittyliteral describes the structure of the commentariat as a series of concentric circles. The core group is about 25 people, surrounded by second and third tiers, along with lurkers. “There’s two people at the heart of it: the mom and dad of the group,” she says. “They organize a lot of stuff, and they’re often seen as the voice of reason.” Apparently, I met the two ringleaders at the happy hour, though they asked Kittyliteral not to reveal their identities to me.

The commenters have been meeting in real life since May 12, 2009, when the first DCist commentariat happy hour took place at the now-shuttered Warehouse Theater. Fleury’s first happy hour was at The Big Hunt. He brought along his roommate, who promptly met and started dating another commenter. The two are now married and living in San Francisco.

But in-person hang-outs weren’t the only thing the commentariat was doing outside of the DCist comment boards. In January 2012, some of the core commenters established a Yahoo listserv designed to “take a discussion off-line if people wanted to discuss things further,” says Kittyliteral. It turned into a “source of hive knowledge, job interviews, you name it.”

In the fall of 2017, mere weeks before DCist was shut down, the commentariat switched their after-hours chatting from Yahoo to Slack, which now has 30-35 members and 20 channels, including an “Insomnia” channel for people who wake up in the middle of the night and are looking to chat. “We don’t have to wait for your posts anymore,” says Kittyliteral.

She told me she was surprised to learn that I read the comments, though she didn’t regret any of her remarks, even the most cutting. “I hold people to high standards, especially when it comes to writing,” she says.

That’s when I realized that it was only on rare occasions the comments were actually about my work. The rough and tumble of the comments section wasn’t about me, or my boss, or any other writer.  The commenters didn’t create Disqus accounts to engage with us. They were there to hang out with one another.

“it’s a true group of friends who help each other in a lot of ways with stuff that’s totally unrelated to DCist,” says Kittyliteral. “It’s just gone way beyond that.”

But perhaps that misunderstanding went both ways. “That blowjob story—that was for us, right?” someone asked me at the happy hour. We never wrote stories simply to please the commentariat, even though we often had an inkling when a post would set them off. As expected, they had a field day after I wrote a dispatch from a fellatio class by Eastern Market.

No, I told them. That one was for me.