News & Politics

Let Us Now Mourn (or Maybe Not) DCist’s Comments Section

The longtime online community vanished last week. If you don't know why that matters, you must be new here.

Image by mphillips007 via iStock/Getty Images.

When DCist killed its comments section last week, an under-catalogued era of Washington journalism died along with it. In the publication’s early days, “it felt like the site wouldn’t matter without the comments,” says Sommer Mathis, the site’s first full-time editor from 2007 to 2010. Comments at many news sites were a way for audience and journalists to mingle, for underrepresented voices to shake the castle walls, or for readers to point out an error or an oversight.

But like anything good on the internet, this utopian state of affairs didn’t last long. While many commenters at DCist and elsewhere behaved themselves, plenty more, fueled by anonymity and the opportunity to perform in front of a bigger audience than they might earn on their own, turned the real estate under articles into what a BuzzFeed employee would later call a “frothing, bubbling cauldron of insanity“: a place to troll, to belittle, and to mock. DCist’s “commentariat” certainly could sport those qualities—Mathis says she would “occasionally get some gross stuff” like men commenting on her appearance, but, she says, “mostly I love the comments back then.”

DCist’s comments section blossomed at a time when the District was evolving from a somewhat sleepy capital to a wealthy city with world-class restaurants and gentrification that remade the character of many neighborhoods. “People were kind of exploring the DC side of things rather than the Washington side of things,” says Aaron Morrissey, who edited the site after Mathis left for TBD.com. “I saw this group of commenters as a slightly more urbane and definitely more filthy version of a neighborhood Listserv.”

DCist, too was growing, from a volunteer-run blog into a professional news site. Martin Austermuhle is a reporter for WAMU who did multiple hitches at DCist going back to 2005. (To make things even more complex, WAMU now operates DCist, which shut down abruptly in 2017 and resumed operations via WAMU the next year.) The commenters, he says, “would e-mail me random tips. We’re not talking Watergate or the Pentagon Papers, but these were the eyes and ears of a small news operation.”

And, in a time before screens showed newsrooms how many people were on a webpage in real time, the count of comments also helped DCist editors know whether they were writing stuff that connected. A high comment count always indicated that a post “was something people were talking about,” Morrissey says. Under Morrissey, the site began publishing roundups of best comments, a way to tip a hat to the group as well as a way to fill one of the 15 or so (!) posts he tried to get up each day. 

As DCist grew, many of its commenters forged real-life relationships at happy hours and meetups. They developed their own language—grounded in a “cynical, jaded, Gen-X-y mindset,” as the longtime commenter with the screen name Monkeyrotica puts it. A “Molly,” for example, was any comment section with more than 100 entries (named for a story about a kidnapped Vizsla). And heaven help a contributor who made a mistake like saying that a restaurant’s brisket was “so tender it falls off the bone“—the commenters would tease them for months. There was a lot of spam. A lot of nasty drive-by comments. And some commenters appeared to delight in tolling or crossing lines.

“Pretty early on,” says Benjamin Freed, a former DCist editor, “I started getting emails saying somebody posted a nude photo in the comments, and I would have to jump into the comments, find the offending post, and take it down. I was not happy that was part of my job.” Matt Cohen, who worked for DCist for two-and-a-half years, estimates he had to spend six hours each week moderating the section. For a publication with a shoestring staff, that was increasingly a huge lift. Nor was the madcap fun inside the comments section always apparent to people unfamiliar with its ways. “We would hear from people who would find themselves in the crosshairs of people making fun of somebody’s weight or making light of somebody’s trauma,” Freed says.

The comments section could be something of a locals-only beach, Monkeyrotica says. The way in was to weigh in—and hope you didn’t draw too many sharks with any chum you left in the water. The longtime commenters would often greet newcomers with the line “You must be new here.”

“You would get new commenters or people who didn’t know what they were stumbling into,” Monkeyrotica says. In the case of Molly the Vizsla, for example, such a naïf might want to “have a serious discussion of mental-health issues” regarding loss of a pet. The commenters, however, desired swift justice: “We just want the dog back.”

Some survived the hazing and became regulars. “It was a bit of a test,” says Austermuhle. “Can you take a joke? Can you come back with something better?” One commenter, screen name Dread Pirate Roberts, made T-shirts with a Warhol-esque treatment of Molly’s image and the legend “WE ARE THE COMMENTARIAT AND YOU MUST BE NEW HERE.” Austermuhle loved the togs: “They were a physical incarnation of an online community,” he says.

Photograph courtesy Monkeyrotica.

At some point, though, broken windows started appearing in the neighborhood. Commenter Kittyliteral told Rachel Kurzius, an associate editor for the site who’s now an on-air host at WAMU, that the commentariat referred to disruptive, overly political, or just lousy commenters as “WTOP trolls” who would lead discussions “straight down the gutter and into the sewer.” Indeed, while newcomers to DCist’s comments section would often hear a record scratch as the saloon’s regulars sized them up, many other publications had it a lot worse when it came to unwanted behavior below the fold. It turns out that nurturing a community requires time and attention, something few media organizations felt they could afford as advertising dollars began to flow from local publications to tech giants. (WTOP doinked its comments section in 2017, citing “discourse” that “devolved into sometimes hateful and racist dialogue.”)

Friction between DCist’s editors and the commentariat became standard equipment as the years passed. When Cohen started, he says, “the comments were mostly friendly but skeptical; I think that’s how they treated every new editor.” The relationship between one editor and the commentariat, though, could fill several blog posts. I’m speaking, of course, of the deeply Jungian battle between the commentariat and Freed, who worked at the site from late 2011 until 2013 (he landed at Washingtonian not long afterward and now works as an editor for the Scoop News Group). After a couple days of asking about this situation, I suspect each party may have been genetically engineered to drive the other bonkers.

After dispatching spam, Freed began a campaign of cleaning up the section, which led to short-term bans of offenders, including Monkeyrotica. “They had free run of the place, and I was the new guy, so I was easy to pick on,” he says. “Once they saw that Ben was a target, they just went after him with gusto,” Austermuhle says of the commenters. Freed, he says, viewed them as “people camping out on our property.” Freed describes Monkeyrotica in particular as “sort of like my Blofeld.”

Even after Freed left the site in 2013, commenters would post insular memes about him to warn one another against accidentally “giving” him traffic by clicking on something he’d written. Now, both Freed and Monkeyrotica agree a degree of détente has been achieved. (Freed: “I met him. Nice guy. I never have actually learned his real name.” Monkeyrotica: “I never had a problem with Ben.”)

Pablo Maurer was one of the rare DCist contributors who escaped the commenters’ ire. “They worshiped Pablo,” Cohen says. The commenters greeted new installments in Maurer’s “Abandoned D.C.” series with ecstatic fervor: “They would be treating it like a new Kanye just dropped,” he says. “Post memes of Wayne and Garth bowing down.”

“I mean, it’s the Internet, not everybody can be nice,” Maurer writes in a Twitter direct message. (He now works for the Athletic as a staff writer covering soccer, and was on a plane to LA when I asked for an interview.) “But the core group of commenters, they were pretty much always nice to me. The editors were just 100% the subject of their ire, and I never fully understood why. I mean, I almost felt bad getting complimented by them, if that makes any sense, because in the same breath they’d bash someone else on the site!”

Different people have different theories about when or even if DCist’s comments section got less useful. “There’s just so many other better ways to discuss stories,” Freed says. As platforms like Reddit and Twitter, built around discussion, flourished, the necessity of providing a space for people to spout off became a little less clear. Austermuhle theorizes that comments became worse as technology evolved to allow people to posts memes and GIFs rather than to type out their thoughts. Monkeyrotica chalks it up in part to DCist writers getting “tired of commenters not agreeing with what they had to say.” Despite no one asking me, my theory is that, alongside every other aggravation they provide, comment sections die when they became a pain in the ass for management.

Whatever happened, lots of publications iced their comment sections from the latter half of the 2010s onward—including Washingtonian, which got rid of them in 2018 with almost no one noticing. WAMU closed its section in 2020, and Chris Chester, WAMU’s growth editor, says he and the audience team “spent so much time looking at the situation and figuring out if there was a way we could make it work.” But he says, “For the most part the heyday of the DCist comment section was in the past.”

Like a lot of internet history, the commentariat’s work in those salad years is hard to track down. Comments from the WAMU era of DCist still exist in the Disqus platform, but anyone who wants to go spelunking in those caves has to really want to examine the parietal art. With regard to the archive, “Our intention is to preserve it unless there’s a reason not to,” says Chester. When I suggested donating them to the Smithsonian, he replied, “I don’t know what they would do with that many Parks and Rec GIFs.”

The commenters, Kurzius discovered when she wrote about meeting some of them in real life, had chatted among themselves outside of DCist’s servers for years, first on Yahoo and now on Slack. As Kittyliteral told her: “We don’t have to wait for your posts anymore.”

Still, to me at least, it seems important to note the passing of this moment in local media. Monkeyrotica says he finds it rich that DCist referred would-be commenters to find it on Facebook, which he describes as an “open sewer.” Of DCist’s staff, he says, “I don’t think they want any interaction. At a certain point, if you don’t get any meaningful feedback, you’re just basically high on your own farts.” Chester says the time WAMU’s audience team saves by not moderating DCist’s comment section can go toward experimenting with new initiatives to connect with people, like events, voicemail lines, and Twitter’s audio conversation “spaces” feature. (DCist’s post announcing the death of its comment section did not appear in its Facebook feed, which Chester says was an oversight.)

It’s only appropriate that the last word here goes to Monkeyrotica, whose regrets are few. He wishes he’d had the opportunity to one day pass off his office as one of the virtual town’s aldermen to a successor. But, he muses: “Who would want that job? The pay sucks.”

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.