Misguided exclusivity: On the Anthropology News commenting policy

I’ve been exceptionally dismayed this year by the retrograde, anti-open-access, profit-oriented publication philosophy at the American Anthropological Association. Earlier this year they announced that they were renewing their publishing contract with the corporate behemoth Wiley Blackwell. Now I notice that they also have a horribly misguided commenting policy for their online news site, Anthropology News. Here’s what the policy says:

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

On the one hand, this only means that anthropologists who can’t afford the Association’s exorbitant annual dues are going to be further excluded from the Association’s public forums. (There are rumors that many anthropologists only pay the annual dues in years when they are attending the Annual Meetings, because otherwise membership confers few useful benefits.) I am certain that no one is going to be incentivized to join the AAA merely to write a comment on this site, which implies that policy constitutes a harmful form of economic exclusion within the profession without any identifiable upside.

But on the other hand — and even more importantly — this commenting policy just further emphasizes the Association’s paleolithic relationship to technology (cf. their latest tech fail), and in particular their weak grasp on the culture of web publicity. Websites like AN are public spaces. There are cultural norms about how online discussions work in such spaces. It flagrantly disrespects these norms to provide public commenting facilities — as on any blog-like site — and then to deliberately reject all comments by non-dues-paying members.

To be clear: you don’t charge people cash to comment on your articles, because they are already giving you something for free by writing their comments. To comment is to contribute. To comment is to create a space of exchange where otherwise you just have a one-way transmission into the digital void. It’s fair to ask people to create accounts before commenting, to cut down on abuse, but there’s little precedent for making it into a cash transaction.

If you want to have members-only web forums, the generic convention is to hide them behind a login screen for members, instead of coupling a public comment box to an anti-public message. Thus the current policy is both hostile to the digital public and out of touch with web culture.