The time has come to talk about online comments, or maybe the time is well past.
What seems a long time ago in a world now all different, Debbie McKinney, a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News in its McClatchy Company iteration, lamented the birth of these uncensored, real-time, internet versions of letters to the editor.
A feature writer at the newspaper, McKinney had a yen for stories about quirky Alaska characters, and it troubled her how some of the people she wrote about became targets of derision for no other reason than their appearance in a newspaper story.
McKinney, about as kind-hearted a person as you could ever meet, was upset not only that some came under attack because she wrote a story about them, but that the newspaper – by allowing unfettered public comment – provided the forum for such attacks from unidentified critics.
Social media did not then exist. It wasn’t even yet a thought in the minds of Harvard University students Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Some idealistic and hopeful journalists, however, thought that if something like Facebook existed, if there was a way to make people identify themselves before they posted comments, those people would be more restrained, more civil, maybe even friendlier.
It didn’t work.
Facebook began in 2004 and is now the Empire of the Internet. The platform vastly broadened social communication and in the process transformed the way people communicate. It gave them all the opportunity to develop a lot of “Facebook friends,” but it doesn’t seem to have made anyone friendlier.
Comments that troubled McKinney 20 years ago seem now tame. Attack dialogue has become in many ways the language of our times in the tubes. Americans have elected a president who uses Twitter, a Facebook derivative, as a bully pulpit from which to harass and harangue his enemies or others who happen to displease him.
And the news media is firmly entrenched as the platform of the public square, or a million public squares, where everyone who shows up expects to be able to make his or her voice heard.
Some like it this way. Some loathe it this way.
Some say they go to news websites and read only the comments. “Much more entertaining than the stories,” as one Anchorage civil engineer put it.
Some say they are so offended by comments they avoid reading some news websites.
Some readers never comment. Some readers cannot seem to stop commenting.
Some direct their comments at the news. Some seem to think of comment sections as forums in which to start discussions or arguments with others, and there’s no predicting into what strange lands of esoterica those episodes will lead.
The mainstream media has been wrestling with the issues of comments almost since the day the news moved online.
Disqus, a San Fransisco-based company, built a business largely based on selling a moderation algorithm to publishers. The company now faces competition from other companies trying to do the same and expand comments into social interactions with other commenters to build internet “communities,” as they say over at codeinwp.com.
“Community” is the safe synonym for “tribe” in a country gone tribal. Community sounds friendly. Tribe sounds, well, tribal, as in my tribe against your tribe, as in warring tribes, as in all those Third World tribes which can’t seem to get along.
Not that life in ancient times was all that peaceful on this continent either (even here in Alaska) before the white tribes showed on the coasts not that long ago and added to the chaos.
Let’s face it. The history of humanity is conflict.
The well-meaning founders of Civil Comments thought they might be able to end it online.
“Back in early 2015, my co-founder Christa Mrgan and I set out to solve the problem of civility in online discussions, particularly news comments,” writes Aja Bogdanoff. “We believed that systemic harassment and abuse had been something of a blind spot for the people who built the early internet, and that most of the toxic behavior you see online today is the inevitable result of naive decisions about how social tools should be designed and built.”
They developed software to require commenters to comment on the comments of others and in that way help moderate comment sections. Bogdanoff claims the “peer pressure” of people knowing their comments would be reviewed helped to moderate online behavior.
But in the end, Civil failed.
“As much as everyone might like to see higher-quality, less-toxic comments on their favorite news sites,” she wrote, “the reality is that the number of sites willing and able to pay for comments software of any quality is not large, or growing.”
Some websites have simply put an end to comments: Who cares what the great, unwashed masses think about the news?
Others plug along with Facebook comments, somehow deluding themselves into the idea that will make people behave more civilly.
It hasn’t, and because Facebook provided the masses such a convenient platform for making up their own news – fake or otherwise – it has now begun policing itself. The blowback is just beginning.
CrossFit, an athletic training program, announced last week it was abandoning Facebook to protest new rules the organization’s police force is implementing. The founders of Crossfit saw in those rules a hint of effort at controlling discussions of health and fitness.
“CrossFit is a contrarian physiological and nutrition prescription for improving fitness and health,” the company said on its website. “It is contrarian because prevailing views of fitness, health, and nutrition are wrong and have unleashed a tsunami of chronic disease upon our friends, family, and communities. The voluntary CrossFit community of 15,000 affiliates and millions of individual adherents stands steadfastly and often alone against an unholy alliance of academia, government, and multinational food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies.”
CrossFit’s beef with Facebook erupted over the latter’s decision to dump “without warning or explanation the Banting7DayMealPlan user group. The group has 1.65 million users who post testimonials and other information regarding the efficacy of a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. While the site has subsequently been reinstated (also without warning or explanation), Facebook’s action should give any serious person reason to pause, especially those of us engaged in activities contrary to prevailing opinion.”
There is no doubt the low-carbohydrate diets favored by some of the CrossFit tribe runs contrary to the orthodoxy of the day.
Diet is a hugely debated subject in Western societies wrestling with chronic obesity, and it only gets more debatable when athletics like CrossFit join the discussion.
“There is emerging evidence that low-carbohydrate-high-fat (LCHF) diets could be beneficial, particularly for performance in ultra-endurance sports,” Taiwan researcher Chen-Kang Chang and colleagues from the Univesity of Michigan reported in a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Human Kinetics in 2017. “Their effect on field-based sports that require repeated high-intensity activities is also promising. It appears that at least several months of adaptation to a LCHF diet are required for the metabolic changes and restoration of muscle glycogen to occur.”
And there comes the rub in trying to moderate comments on this site or any other.
Where does one draw the lines? How does one avoid turning the comment section into a tribal echo chamber? How much can commenters themselves be counted upon to push back against each other to avoid the narrowing of opinions in what has become a hugely partisan time in a country where so many want the comfort of conformity.
We gravitate toward those who think like we do. It’s a human behavior hard to avoid. It hasn’t always served our species well. Through human history, it has helped spawn the worst of totalitarian regimes.
Not to get all high and mighty, but it’s pretty easy to rationalize the belief that he who moderates least moderates best. As founding father and later President Thomas Jefferson observed, “the agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
It’s worth noting that the press in Jefferson’s day was often vile, at least equal to and regularly worse than what is seen online today. Jefferson took all kinds of media abuse as president, and he sometimes lashed out in Trumpesque ways. But he believed, no matter how chaotic this made democracy, the more voices the better.
Then again, maybe that is simply my rationalization to avoid the time required for constant moderation. Certainly there are those who disagree with the view.
More than one reader has volunteered he or she is not reading this website anymore because of a dislike for the comments. Others have criticized the lack of moderation as an attempt to generate traffic to increase revenues.
One thing I can assure everyone is that the latter is not the case. The amount of revenue generated by traffic here is tiny. Those Google ads are good for making money for Google. They are not worth crap from making money for craigmedred.news.
Were it not for periodic contributions from supportive readers, I would have abandoned this exercise long ago. Somebody might get rich running an online, news website, but it’s not this somebody. Given the hours involved in thoroughly reporting things, this gig works out to a far less than a minimum-wage job.
What it is, in reality, is some sort of sick journalism obsession in a time when journalism doesn’t mean much, but that is the author’s problem and not that of the reader. The author enjoys digging around in information, and much prefers spending time doing that to wasting time moderating comments.
Unfortunately, some moderation is required. Potentially libelous comments show up and need to be blocked. Comments from bogus email addresses are all too common. Certain boundaries need to be maintained on the sometimes scurrilous attacks aimed at people who make it into the news by accident.
I really don’t care about what anyone says about me in the comments. A lifetime in Alaska journalism has largely inoculated me against any reaction to being called names. It sort of goes with the territory, but that doesn’t mean others should be so subjected.
Personally, too, I’d prefer commenters not hijack comment threads and wander off into the weeds with them, but is it really worth anyone’s time to police that? Are not readers themselves capable of recognizing such nonsense and bailing out of the comment section at that recognition?
Is it more important to protect them from off-topic comments they would prefer not to read or skate upon that slippery slope of establishing what the “community” wants to read in the comments section?
I wrestle with the question regularly. I’m as offended as some readers at the efforts of some commenters to link their political views to stories to which there is no linkage. But how far should a moderator go in trying to control this?
Conformity is intellectually dangerous. I don’t want every reader here thinking like me. Disagreement is healthy.
As Gen. George S. Patton once observed, “if everyone is thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.”
Democracy thrives on disagreement as much as it depends on compromise. If we were required to choose but one, there is a stronger argument to be made for the former than the later.
The Space Race, which put the first human on the moon 50 years ago (could it really have been that long?), was little but a bloodless war between the U.S. and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to establish which country was bigger and stronger and badder than the other.
One can debate whether desires to murder our kin are hardwired into our genes, but there’s no debating that the competitive spirit – which has often led to war and death – lives there.
“Americans love to fight,” Patton also once observed. “All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers.”
Enter the internet, the blue-collar bar of social interaction.
I grew up around blue-collar bars. There were a lot of arguments. They often arose out of little more than a desire to fight. Thus fighting sometimes followed the arguments. Often there was more than a little alcohol involved.
By these standards, one could argue the internet is an improvement. All the arguments; none of the fistfights; a lot less drunkenness (hopefully at least, given it’s impossible to know what anyone is doing while typing in the tubes other than at some point alcohol so numbs the sense one can’t read and/or type).
And here, all I can do is throw this back to readers:
How much moderation of comments should there be? If more, by what standards? If so, who sets the standards? If then, how stringent?