A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media’s blog.

How can writers nurture great commenting communities while still engaging with the tough questions?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic and author of the memoir “The Beautiful Struggle,” spoke recently at MIT’s Media Lab. Before The Atlantic, Coates worked for The Village Voice, the Washington City Paper, and Time. Coates is a visiting researcher here at MIT this year.

Coates’ series of posts about the civil war are a great example of great community conversations online. Recently, Coates posted letters from Dangerfield Newby, who joined John Brown on his famous raid. In response, commenters sent in fascinating context about Newby’s family story.

Old media often see the Internet as a cesspool. While we can find that stuff if we want to, Coates said, the Internet can offer amazing opportunities to find and curate positive community. He told us the story of one of his commenters who would write amazing, beautifully written posts with lots of hyperlinks and sources. The community played guessing games to find out who this was: James Fallows? Obama? It turned out to be a Babson professor. Coates told his editor that this guy should write for the site — and now he does.

A great writer shouldn’t be afraid to look stupid in public. In the age of pundits, we tend to put people on high. But a good writer and community curator will be open to contributions.

A product of print

“I’m a college dropout,” Coates reminded us. He’s a writer now, but he failed English once in high school and twice in college. Coates started writing in 1996 and left school because he was in love with writing. He didn’t understand at the time that writing could be a career. Once he figured out that he could get paid, he left to focus on his writing. For the first 12 years, Coates was a product of print. His father ran a small independent press. Growing up, there were books everywhere; he never expected to become an Internet writer.

In 2008, Coates found himself with nothing to do. His book manuscript was finished, his last story was finished, and he felt floating in the wind. At the time, he was a consumer of blogs, but he hadn’t ever tried to write his own. Then his employer, Time Magazine, mandated that every employee must blog. It was the Hot Thing, and Time encouraged writers to specialize — to develop an “Internet Beat.” That felt wrong to him. He wanted to throw together his passions: the Commodore 64, Dungeons and Dragons, race.

At the time, Coates liked Matthew Yglesias’s blog. But he hated that comments always turned to issues of race. A blog post about as something as mundane as a parking garage would easily attract racist comments. That felt like grafitti on a work of art. Coates decided that on his blog, he would try to pay attention to community. Over time, community has become the great strength of his blog.

Coates wants his blog to be a place where people feel safe — not that they won’t face hard arguments — but that people wouldn’t feel a pariah status while reading. He compares a blog post to a dinner party. A good host simply won’t allow some things to be said, and a blog conversation is much the same.

“Once you take out the rubbish and clear away the weeds, flowers begin to grow,” he said. There’s a lot of rubbish out there, Coates told us. People who don’t normally comment will come forward if you cultivate a good garden. Now, his readers will often offer new information and helpful insights that he never knew. Great commenters offer interesting ideas that offer the advantages of peer review without its downsides.

You can read the full transcript of questions and answers during Coates’ talk at the Media Lab here.

Image courtesy of David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons and used here under the Creative Commons license.

Nathan develops technologies for media analytics, community information, and creative learning at the MIT Center for Civic Media, where he is a Research Assistant. Before MIT, Nathan worked in UK startups, developing technologies used by millions of people worldwide. He also helped start the Ministry of Stories, a creative writing center in East London. Nathan was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.