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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.

Clean up

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.”

Tribalism

There is no doubt the low-carbohydrate diets favored by some of the CrossFit tribe runs contrary to the orthodoxy of the day.

“Low-carb diets ‘are unsafe and should be avoided,'” Medical News Today headlined last August, citing a Polish study. 

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.”

One man’s poison might well be another man’s meat to flip the long-ago observation of ancient Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus.

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.

There are evolutionary biologists who now argue that it was war, the ultimate disagreement, that drove the technology that has driven most of human evolution.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

45 replies »

  1. Excellent review of ‘Comment-hell’, Craig. An important topic, a worthy facility, unlikely to fade or be resolved.

    Add to the 18th C Yellow Press observation (the Internet did not invent nasty comments), that Military Uniforms are about avoiding the use of personal-dress accessories to deliver Messages, Proclaim, Advertise, etc. There are Mainstream versions of this, too. “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everyone did?”

    Comments help & boost Medred-style websites, much more than they do Rogoff-style websites. For better and for worse, Comments are our friend. Democracy’s friend, as well-identified in the Post.

    Plan for Success. You can barely manage, even now, when the site gets low traffic and earns paper-route money. If your Product were to take off (there are several national names that are less-likely success-stories than you), Comments would most likely remain a big part of it … but way-way too many.

    Crazy piles of comments paradoxically help, in certain respects. Judith Curry often receives hundreds, sometimes pushing 1,000, and she’s not one of the more-dramatic examples. She has this issue of certain individuals engaging in repetitious (rythmic, get-a-room) behavior with each other … but it’s mercifully swamped-out by the larger numbers of ‘straight’ commenters.

    WordPress Plugins (55K+) are our friend too. A spendy, high-maintenance friend to be sure, but a true one and unlike Comment-complications the challenges are mostly objective, technical, fixed. Work you invest is cumulative. It gets easier. Site-owners often struggle with plugins for Comments, but this arises mainly from installing other, big & complex plugin Products/Suites, first. Deactive the other stuff, get your comment-system the way you want it, then reactivate the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink hog and if it breaks things, replace THAT, or better yet replace those functionalities of it which you actually use (with smaller, simpler, specific-purpose plugins).

    People have tried to get commenters to Categorize and Tag their own comments, which of course is delusional at best, rapidly degrading to farce. Remember ELIZA? 1960s software that offered to ‘help’ people with their personal problems (DOCTOR script, actually), like a psychologist. ELIZA is the great-granny of Chat Bots and text-based AI. This type of software can identify the nature of comments, and Categorize & Tag them, for you. I’m not saying here that a mature plugin exists to do this, but that the basic software is well-known & developed, and that this is an avenue that could be pursued. (Like Commander Data of Star Trek, ELIZA is naturally but unintentionally “humorous”, even without trying.)

    It can help a lot, simply to fold Reply hierarchies. People start replying & getting into each other, give them their own room. If another visitor wants to look, watch, join in, they click to unfold the sub-thread.

    There’s a Broken Window, fresh paint & landscaping effect. More nice stuff for the Comment Section can improve their quality. WordPress Tavern now gives you 30 minutes to Edit your comment: they may also be placing comments in a 30 minute delay-queue, which holds down the ‘racing-effect’.

    Comments promote the kind of society we want. But like Democracy, they’re not perfect, tidy, or cheap.

  2. If you want to read ‘comments’ in the real and round just wander over here:

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-05-29/robert-mueller-make-unexpected-statement-russia-probe-11am

    Zerohedge comments are about as blatantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti party and, of course, pro Trump as one can find. Thousands, THOUSANDS! of comments every single day that are nothing but disparagement towards individuals and groups of individuals, no matter the topic, along with prideful support of their comrades. Ca-ching! Medred, all you need is more Bryan’s an Mongo’s and you’d be in the money.

    Back in the day, it was a worthwhile engagement. I got tossed TWICE for stating the obvious that they didn’t follow their published creed. It’s a money making cesspool that does stories, some even original like when it started out.

    • Monk, you do realize the whole Trump “Russian Collusion” story was made-up by the party of Jim Crow and anti-womens and minority rights? Oh wait, that would be your party now wouldn’t it?

  3. “Much more entertaining than the stories,” as one Anchorage civil engineer put it.”
    That sounds like something I would say – and I meant it.
    No disrespect meant to the writer. but there can be bits of wisdom in the comments that further the subject understanding and increase the value of the product.
    Then there is the entertainment factor – lively and humorous comments are more entertaining than a stale “objective” news report.
    Humor/sarcasm sometimes comes across as insulting and objectionable. Some peoples humor is not as funny as they think either.
    So Craig – are you a reporter or an entertainer?
    I would think a successful business model would force you to be as entertaining as possible.
    Has anyone tried something like a hypothetical AnchorageTownSquare.com where issue forums revolve around current news? A better platform to sell advertising maybe? Isn’t that what is needed?

    • The internet is eliminating the need for paper. So how does the new paradigm replace all the invested capital of the traditional news/advertising business? ADN is a doomed enterprise unless they can adapt to the new paradigm. Why not create their new paradigm competitor?

  4. I’m a firm believer in the use of real names, obviously. All of my various forum profiles are strictly real name, and I make sure that I don’t say anything on a forum that I wouldn’t be willing to say while looking the recipient right in the eye.

  5. A few points I have made before:
    1. Why not have 2 comment sections? One for real names and one for anonymous names. Anonymous types claim they need anonymity for protection against retribution – whether in their job or out in public. That argument carries little weight with me. If you feel the world needs to see your comment then show the courage of your convictions! Or zip it.
    2. I would like to see someone do a comments forum in a debate format. The moderator would take the best arguments and place them in a specific subject forum in point-counterpoint fashion. I think the end-product would have more lasting value.

  6. Minimal moderation. No advertising. Belmont Club on PJ Media and greater PJ Media are a pretty good model. American Thinker works well. Former is on Discus. Latter requires an account to be set up and login. Cheers –

    • Watts Up With That is also a pretty good model, though probably not applicable here. it is huge with a several person moderation team. Cheers –

  7. Well written, thoughtful article, Craig.

    I hope you all had a safe and happy Memorial Day with your loved ones. everybody. Heartfelt thanks going out to all who wore/wear the uniform to keep America safe and free

  8. Happy Memorial Day ! I am honored to receive the benefits of the brave who fought for our countries freedoms and ideas. Thank you . Let freedom ring . Celebrate Freedom of speech . Down with big tech / big brother- free assange ! Craig medred rocks! Lots of good comments below.

  9. Thanks Craig,
    For your thoughts, research and ever questing for the “real” facts. I am glad for your blog, have donated and wish I could give more. You could set up a go fund me account, tied to your blog, everyone that comments, would then donate. Only a suggestion.
    Thanks for the ride!

    • Im thinking burgers/ribs,and other substitutes,copious amounts of local brew @ The Medred Compound.
      I live in the valley so I’ll be needing a designated driver

      • I will not be able to accommodate as the designated driver, since at my age I am doing a lot of self medicating, to get through my daily life! LOL!

  10. Craig,
    I personally feel requiring commentors to use their real names would cut down on personal attacks and partisan bickering on this site…
    Many conservatives throughout the state seem unhappy that “comments” have evolved into a dynamic “debate” in which alternative views and data which are not normally included in media stories is shared with the community.
    I myself have been drawn into many arguments online that were not the intent on my original comment.
    Overall I feel this site has broken new ground with the political forum for readers and thinkers (and writers) in Alaska….
    If the comments are dropped on this site then new forums will start online.
    Please consider the “real name” approach for the future as it may save you time and effort in censorship and complaints.

    • Steve,

      You must have missed this part of the article above

      “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.”

      It turns out using your name doesn’t lead to civil conversation, it’s people who believe in having civil conversation that leads to civil conversation.

      • Steve O,
        There is not one “journalistic site” that requires real names online today…
        If you can direct me to one site that has tried it over time or currently doing it today, the quote above may stand more weight…but as it is in reality that is just an opinion like yours.
        Fact is like what we are seeing come out with the current administration here in AK is political party propaganda is spread with FB accounts and handles not registered to the state.
        As long as anonymous handles and unnamed accounts are allowed then political groups will spread their message and attack opponents without interruption.
        That is the truth of this matter.

      • Steve, the problem is we have seen Democrats in the past take real names, then look up addresses, and march on the front lawns of those they disagree with while scaring the chit out of their kids. The radical Left are a violent mob. It isn’t some commentator on a forum I am concerned with, it is that looney Leftist on my lawn with rocks in his hand. Less the insane know about me the better.

      • Steve,
        I don’t do the facebooking, but from what I understand of it you aren’t “allowed” to use fake names. If that is the case, then every site that uses facetime for comments would be the proof you desire.

        As far as political groups spreading their message, it’s been that way since politics was invented which was probably around the same time as the world’s oldest profession was invented since it is the samething just for a different cause…one being money the other being power.

      • Steve O…
        Facebook is bogus and always has been…I believe at last count the NSA had 40K fake names and the FSB has even more…
        How many Ms. Johnson’s are there on FB with little puppies for their icons?
        “Facebook says it removed 3.39 billion fake accounts from October to March.
        That’s twice the number of fraudulent accounts deleted in the previous six-month period.
        The fake accounts are roughly a billion more than the 2.4 billion actual people on Facebook worldwide, according to the company’s own count.”
        Think about that…
        Over 1 Billion More Fake Accounts on (Fakebook) than real people!
        No, I mean real names that are verifiable in this state (since 95 % of the commentors claim to be Alaskans).
        Don’t sweat your anonymous handle, cause I suspect nothing here is going to change as Craig prefers more traffic than less.

        https://www.npr.org/2019/05/23/726353723/facebook-removed-nearly-3-2-billion-fake-accounts-in-last-six-months

      • Steve,

        Sure seems like facebooking is more of a problem than a few people who decide to use a nom de plume to share their thoughts on craigmedred.news. Maybe people using facetime should think about how fraudulent what they are taking part in is, and using snapbook for your news and where you gather information isn’t the way to go. Using a pseudonym is nothing new, neither is civil discourse. If facechat has more fake users than real users, it kind of seems like using them as the gold standard for comments sections isn’t the model to use, and facebooking is not supposed to have any fake users…so how do you think using real names leads to civil discourse? Does using a fakebook account, what with more fake users than real users, lead to civil discourse?

  11. Debate is good and hearty here at the home for readers and thinkers, even if some commentators do little of either.

  12. “Some websites have simply put an end to comments.”

    Pretty good choice. For you the loss of the few who only come here to comment would be inconsequential, washed or unwashed.

    • As much as I hate to say it, you may be right, Monk. Seriously, look at any of these blogs’ comment sections – they are mostly carbon copies of themselves regardless of the subject. We’ve got the same 5-10 people making comments (myself included) and we are all saying the exact same things as we said last article. Craig can write a story about pink salmon and within 3 comments the section will be discussing the pro’s and con’s of Trump’s latest Fox & Friends phone call and how socialism is destroying America.
      I would like to think that if you were required to at least throw down your actual name, the vitriol would be reduced and that might allow for more relevant and civil debate, however, it is pretty easy to work around the verified user criteria. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading an Alex Jones comment board with the paranoid comments moving towards mob stupidity.
      Cheers friend!

  13. I wonder how things would change if people had to come back to the website and approve their comments after a certain amount of time, like 10 minutes or even a half-hour. It would certainly cut down on the number of comments that are just spewing. I rarely read comments anymore. The level of discourse is too often so low.

  14. Also BTW, it’s Memorial Day and I remember all those hippie Commie SOBs calling us returning veterans Baby Killers. But, since 1973 they’ve been the Baby Killers and now stand to kill babies even after they’re born. So a BIG FU to all of the Commie SOBs who post on here because they have no family and no life outside of what big government allows them to have, you get what you deserve! Happy Memorial Day to all the other red blooded Americans!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful remark, MLC. Memorial day is not Veteran’s Day. There’s a huge distinction. But thanks, as always, for voicing your vitriol laced, highly refined opinion in the way that you do best!
      Cheers!
      PS – if you served in Vietnam or any other armed conflict, I will thank you on Veteran’s Day.

      • OK, MLC, what in your words does Memorial Day represent? I looked at your link and it was the History Channel’s summer special on Memorial Day. I didn’t see anything about hammering commies, baby-killers, or other SOB’s. I think that most Americans who have taken a basic American history class knows that Memorial Day (Remembrance Day) was created after the Civll War to remember the fallen. I’m pretty sure that I am not the one here to ‘re-invent History’. I also think that most Americans who have served know the distinction between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day – do you?
        Sincerely,
        ‘Comrade’ Smothers
        PS – have you applied for your PFD this year, Comrade? Please tell me you’re not some kind of red-doper-diaper-baby…

      • And THIS thread, in which I’m trying to engage with an obvious superior intellect is why Craig is going to pull the plug on comments. Because we can’t even debate a simple problem without running off on tangents about commie, diaper-wearing, baby-killing SOB’s… Sorry everyone, but I feel like I’m reading excerpts of Glenn Beck’s Arguing with Idiots every time I get into the comment section here.
        Cheers!

      • The only one your arguing with is yourself. First you deny the military origins of Memorial Day, when proven wrong, you deflect to the PFD, and then when a Great President’s Memorial Address is posted you bring up arguing with idiots. So Comrade Smothers, enjoy arguing with yourself.

      • OK Ass,
        I know what Memorial Day is about – I am a vet. I come from a family of 5 generations of vets on my fathers side and 3 generations of vets on my mothers side. My little bro is a retired Marine. I have family who have been wounded and friends who have died in the service of our great country. Memorial Day is not about thanking vets for their service – Ass. It’s about remembering those who have fallen in the military service of our country. Ass. On Veteran’s Day, you should thank people like my family for fighting for your pathetic ass to have the right to spout out the uninformed opinions that you’re running your base mouth off with. And… I’m done trying to change the tide of idiocracy.
        Cheers… Ass

        PS – Craig, I believe that this has got to be the furthest off-base, tangent comment thread EVER in the history of your blogsite. Sorry that I didn’t let it go with this ass – like you said, we Americans like to fight. Cheers!

      • And the award for dumbest post of the Year goes to……………….Comrade Smothers!

  15. The “standard” has already been set and it is the 1st Amendment.
    With the advent of the Internet the the Democrats and their MSM mouthpieces have lost their monopoly to control the masses. The “bullies” now feel threatened. Now they are forced to take a swig of their own medicine and they do not like it.
    Facebook and Twitter have both instituted selective censorship policies at the request of several European countries. These same selective censorship programs are currently being instituted here in North America to regain “control” of the “narrative”.
    Sadly we cater to the sissy, offended crowd today. I miss the good old days when they were told to – “shut-up and go sit in the corner”. Well hell, call me a hypicrite… argh..see, it never ends. I refer you back to my 1st sentance.

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