Something Is Missing

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In the more than two months since Torah Musings (TM) changed from a blog to an ezine, there have been many improvements: a better, clearer and easier to maneuver layout, a broader and richer range of content, and a larger and more diverse group of writers, to name several. For someone who prints out articles to read on Shabbat, the pile I have been bringing home from the office recently (and the number of trees killed) has grown significantly.

But there is one aspect of the new TM that I find lacking, especially as compared to the earlier versions: the true sense of chevrah which developed over time from a vigorous discussion, and often debate, among readers in the comments section. Sure, there was lots of repetition and a sense of déjà vu when certain topics appeared in an essay or news article (Orthodox women and gay issues to take two prominent examples), but even that had a certain sense of warmth, like reading a favorite book for the umpteenth time. And the fact that I was pretty sure I knew what Steve or IH (and others would know what I) would write on specific issues did not detract (too much) from the fact that we were a group of (virtual) friends batting around not only each other but ideas and opinions and philosophies and ideologies as well. There was a real sense of camaraderie when the virtual intensified in off-list discussions and turned real in face-to-face meetings, usually serendipitous, in shul, at a simcha or around a Shabbat table. When I would repeat a comment on some controversial issue to my kids and they asked me where that came from, they would often smile when I answered “from a Hirhurim friend.”

Although two months is perhaps too short a time to reach any definitive conclusions, it seems to me (or ISTM in blog speak) that this important aspect of TM has disappeared in the new version. Article after article receive no comments at all; topics that would have received hundreds of comments get, perhaps, three or four. There is no give and take, no pointing out errors real or imagined, no parsing of words or ideas, and no pushing an author to be clearer, to explain further, to amend or, halevai, to retract (not that very much retracting took place). Now, the writer says his or her piece and, like the proverbial falling tree in the forest, we don’t know if any sound was left behind. Perhaps it would help if the number of comments appeared on the home page next to the title which would serve two purposes: (a) remind people to submit (worthy and well thought out) comments and (b) save people who are interested in commenting from having to open the article to see if there are any new comments on a thread they’re interested in. (Gil tells me further suggestions are welcome.)

Since comments in the new version are moderated, I’m sure that the vast decrease in their number has given Gil more time to write, to work and to spend with his family. And since he does this as a labor of love, it is a bit ungracious of me to carp over a change that has eased his burden in providing a resource that, for many, has widened our horizons and taught us a great deal. Nonetheless, with true hakarat hatov to Gil for his continued efforts, I miss what we once had and regret the loss of the energy that permeated the earlier, more raucous, incarnation. And I wonder if I am alone in feeling that while TM has gained in content and depth it has lost a part of its soul.

About Joseph C. Kaplan

Joseph Kaplan, a lawyer in New York, has been writing about Jewish matters in various publications for many years.

23 comments

  1. Srully Epstein

    Perhaps there can be a general discussion area (maybe give it a name: The Coffee Room) rather than comments here and there on particular essays. See what topics pick up.

  2. I don’t think this was some mass-protest of the ‘ezine’ format, just that the site loads really slowly, commenting is more complicated now, etc.

  3. I never used to leave comments, so I cannot say that I participated in the old camaraderie of which Joseph Kaplan speaks. However, I very much enjoyed reading the comments – seeing different ideas and aspects on the issue (even if they were ‘deju vu’). Such (often diverse) bright minds commented. I always felt that the I gained 60/40 from the article – 60% from the article itself, and 40% from the comments. I miss them.

  4. I too sense the loss that R’ J Kaplan speaks of.

  5. I agree as well. I think there are a few reasons. The fact that one has to sign up and log in an account to comment is one possible factor. But I think its something more.

    I think many people were much more comfortable with the old format and layout of the blog. It was something they had grown familiar with and there was something very friendly in its simplicity. It was advertised that it would “relaunch as something much bigger and better.” Its definitely bigger. I don’t know why this grandiose change to the site, but there is something off putting and I have found I don’t check the site as much as I used to, and I don’t read the articles as much. I would also maybe add that I think there are too many guest posts that are not on usual torah musings material, though I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. Maybe part of it is there were many more shorter articles that were quick and easy reads? I think people are more apt to comment on articles written by authors they are familiar with and whose opinions they respect, as opposed to all these new authors I’ve never heard of before. Its just not the same. Its too complex looking, and the feature of the shifting articles that are available to read is an unnecessary unhelpful addition.
    I think there was an overall pleasant humility to the older format that was lost. Part of that is the old site didn’t show authors faces as much, if at all, and I think there was something just humble and nice about that fact.

    Perhaps people are more prepared psychologically to comment on a blogtype website, whereas these big online journals, they just aren’t very inviting to be commented on and maybe you don’t expect people to read your comments or comment themselves. I really think the formatting has a psychological effect.

    I’m not sure if readership has gone up with the change, but its usually best to keep it nice and simple, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I don’t know if any of these above stated ideas apply to anyone else, but I do believe they are likely the reasons why I have stopped reading and commenting as much.

  6. When i tried to comment on the halachic aspects of a post, my offering was rejected. I think the moderation is much stricter nowadays, restricting any possibility of rigorous debate.

  7. This is an excellent article.

  8. There were so few comments, I thought that the general policy was no comments except in unusual situations.

    And i will echo mistabra, I check the site less and rarely read any articles… the comments helped me determine what to read. And I enjoyed the conversation.

    More important (and here I am less sure about this point), when I started reading Hirhurim, the posts were very much about opening up the discussion and to show that there was some merit to each side of the debate. That changed (well before the move to the new format) and Hirhurim became more about advancing a particular point of view. And that was OK too — so long as there were comments. But without the comments…

  9. I would just add that it seemed to take a few hours for my post to go up. That will hinder discussion.

  10. If I may “crowdsource” the search for my preferred resolution to this issue…

    When RGS took this blog from what was once his personal Hirhurim to more of an e-zine, one of his consciously set goals was to make the comment chain more formal as well. And in fact, what we have now is somewhat less of a change than what was described to me in the planning stages.

    I would like to find a way to have two tiers of conversation.

    1- We leave the current, more moderated and therefore hopefully more preplanned comment system.

    2- For more social discussion of the issues raised, let’s put it on the forum best suited for such things — Facebook. Every TM post becomes a FB status already (and we can move that from Gil’s wall to a TM page). Anyone out there want to help find some way to make the blog entry a front end to FB commenting? I know it can be done, there are newspapers that use Facebook as their comment system. Now can it be done ALONGSIDE the current comment system?

  11. Sigh….. IMO there’s no mystery here.

    R’ Gil announced “The End of the Hirhurim Blog”, declared the commenters a bunch of bores and dismissed the audience to find greener pastures in which to have serious discussions.

    It seems the message was gotten.

  12. Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’ve ever had a comment approved. In my humble opinion, none were particularly controversial, which makes me wonder: Are comments rejected for being too trivial? Are they rejected for being too in-depth? Either way, it takes far too long to them to appear (and, as I said, they never do), so I’ve given up and barely check more than the “reid,” and never try to comment.

    Add to that that it’s almost impossible to log in. I’m logging in via Facebook now, which I don’t like.

    I can’t help but be a bit peeved: The entire registration was established (before the site was revamped) in response to sockpupetting of one person- an actual (very distinguished) contributor to the site, not a commenter! Things may sometimes have been uncivil in the comments, or off-topic, or whatever, but I think most of us were pretty honest and open in our methods. And because of something that wasn’t “our” fault- quite the opposite- it was davka we who were all tarred with suspicion and treated as if we needed monitoring.

    I don’t have high hopes this will be posted. I don’t even know if it will be read. But I want to get it off my chest.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: APPROVED. APPEARS TO BE L’SHEM SHAMAYIM.;-)

    • Similar to Nachum I tried a couple of times to have a comment accepted and was rejected. I spoke to another former frequent Hirhurim commentator and he told me he also had a couple of comments rejected since the new format. Seeing very few comments I have assumed that there was a very high bar that had to be passed for comments to be accepted which I apparently was not passing. I miss the comments.

  13. I’ve commented three times, and my first two were rejected. Just to make sure I was doing things right, I submitted the safe comment above, “This is an excellent article” – that got through the moderation. The moderation is also too slow. So, maybe post-comment self policing would work better. Comments are posted immediately, and subject to moderation only if someone objects.

    • Your two comments were short but abusive. I’m sure you can find ways of making your point without insulting the writers who put in great thought and effort to their essays.

      • I’ll grant that my first, but blocked comment on Joe Kaplan’s article – very much agreeing with him, by the way – was edgy, while trying to be humorous. Given the policy interests of res judicata, I’ll abide by the ruling of the court 🙂

        However, my other comment, on Rabbi Asher Bush’s article, dealing with the arrests of the men who allegedly inflicted torture on get-recalcitrant husbands, was not remotely “abusive”. I proposed an additional course of action, for the situation to be confronted. I have a hunch why I was blocked, which I need not get into here, lest I be blocked again, but abusive, I was not.

        • I agree. I misread your second comment and improperly blocked it. I apologize for that.

          • And, as it seems I touched the wrong nerve with my edgy comment, I too say, sorry. In fact, to be clear, no disrespect was at all intended. TM continues to be combination thought-provoking and lots of fun in the content. I will single out R’ Herring’s article, “The Pew, The Few” as but one example. Indeed, TM has carved out a special, distinct niche in the frum community. It is really a daily must-read for those want to check the pulse. The challenge, as Joe Kaplan basically puts it, is how to restore the leibidik atmosphere of back-and-forth commenting, while at the same time, maintaining some reasonable fealty to the Jewish rules of civil discourse.

  14. Ohhh. And I thought you really liked it. 🙂

  15. I agree with the idea that a Facebook commenting option would be good, however the downside is you can’t post anonymously and many people as a result won’t say certain things that they are really thinking. There also isn’t moderation on FB comments, though I guess they could be deleted after the fact.

  16. I too am frustrated by the speed (or lack thereof) of the servers. I don’t know much about web hosting but because people had issues with the prior situation in which I received free hosting and services (some readers even threatened lawsuits), I had to take on this additional task. If anyone is willing to volunteer their services in optimizing the website, I’ll gladly take the offer.

  17. The website loads much too slowly, comment submission is very slow, comment moderation decisions can be slow as well. My first few comments were blocked mostly for being early, AFAICT. But I told you when you changed format, you’d be getting fewer hits, because of the loss of discussion that you were clearly aiming for. Has that happened?
    . In the interest of stimulating good Torah discussion, this combination of factors that has inhibited commenting, has simply moved the good discussions to Facebook, to the less-moderated blogs. So, by reducing the volume of discussion here, you’ve increased the total of leitzonus. I doubt that was your goal.
    . Maybe you should think about getting a faster engine, and instituting a mod board, to speed comment approval?

  18. 1) At one point, I could not post comments, even though I was logged in. If others has the same problem, this probably suppressed comments.

    2) The moderation delay undoubtedly causes issues. Perhaps the community is small enough to where a “flagging” for up/down voting system would be sufficient and not abused?

    3) I put a decent amount of work into my comments. If any were rejected, I probably would stop bothering to post any comments since it would just mean that my work was wasted.

    4) I don’t have a lot of time or specific expertise specifically in website optimization, but I have a long and deep background in computer science. If no one else is looking at why the website is slow, I can at least take a look. Have you at least enabled caching?

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