Cleaning up the wild west: how to deal with internet comments
Is there any way to fix the state of affairs which currently holds sway below the line?
So, what are we going to do about internet comments then? Or are we just going to let the present situation continue? Barely a week goes by without another round of pointing and shouting about the mess to be found below the line following many online opinion pieces or articles. The people have spoken and, boy, it’s, well, it’s something else. You’ve seen cleaner sewers, in short. No wonder the usual generalisations about online commentators apply (the one about keyboard warriors in their underpants and that’s just the freelance journalists) when you read the vitriol. There are, it has to be said, many comments which advance and tease out the points made in the piece above, but they’re usually lost in the swamp.
There are many great things about comment-enabled pieces, but these have been rapidly overtaken and eroded by the often indecipherable, unintelligible and incomprehensible reams of comments which you’ll usually find in these forums. The advice to journalists who write hard-hitting opinion pieces from their peers is “don’t read the comments”, which sort of completely defeats the purpose of writing a hard-hitting piece in the first place. Surely if you write an opinion piece, you want people to engage with your views and you should be able to deal with valid criticisms and points of view?
But the problem for anyone who wants to engage with the more clear-cut and concise criticisms which often occur below the line is that you have to wade through a lot of mud to get there. And there are only so many hours in the day. No wonder there’s so much interest when publishers like the Chicago Sun-Times talk about turning off comments.
The main problem is that we have allowed this state of affairs to develop for far too long. By “we”, I mean everyone on both sides of the house – the writers, editors and publishers who provide the facility and the readers who’re happy to add their views or vent at will. On the publishing side, more and more stories are comments-enabled because this means more page views and clicks in the name of more ad revenue. On the readers side, more and more stories with comments open means more and more opportunities to act the eejit. One side simply enabling the other. After all, do we really need to give readers the opportunity to comment after that story, especially when we don’t have the means, resources or will to properly moderate what’s going on?
What began as an useful excercise in breaking down the barries between “us” and “them”, the situation which used to be the norm in publishing, has become the wild west, a place where no-one seems sure if this is still a good idea or not, but is not prepared to do anything about it. Journalists who were never going to engage with readers now have an excuse to continue this lofty, silly stand-off because of the crazy behaviour in comments. Meanwhile, readers take this unwillingness on the part of journalists to answer criticisms as a license to say things in the comments that they’d never say in real life. It’s the ultimate lose-lose situation.
It’s probably gone so far now that any potential solution just won’t work. For instance, a vibrant comments ecosystem probably needs the writer to engage with the readers, which is something that most writers just won’t do for a combination of reasons. It’s unfortunate because, from personal experience with this blog (especially when the “anonymous” comments system allowed all and sundry to comment freely), I’ve learned that the majority of people who take the time to comment here are sane and sensible. Readers have also provided steers towards many decent stories over the years so you’d be stupid not to engage in kind. It also makes you test your theories and helps to build a readership with those who come here to read and get involved.
On a newspaper’s op-ed pages, though, you very rarely get the columnists engaging with the readers. In most cases, you can’t blame them such is the level of invective and idiocy which holds forth in the comments. Some readers, of course, do make great points and superb counter-arguments but they’re soon derailed by the overall mood music. Any writer would want to be crazy to wade into the pit so most writers never do and editors never insist on it.
Well, some writers are crazy enough to put your theories to the test so, last week when my opinion piece about Oxegen appeared in the paper, I kept an eye on the comments beneath the piece. Now, I’d written another piece about Oxegen for OTR the day before and the comments here were, as is always the case on OTR, pretty much on topic about the festival and the festival circuit in general.
Over on the op-ed page, the same applied. Leaving aside the plainly WTF comments – some of which reminded me of a spy film where people left coded messages for oneanother in newspaper small ads – there were a couple of perfectly valid on-point comments and a conversation happened. Granted, an opinion piece about a defunct and unloved Irish music festival is not exactly premier league click-bait for out-there comments or one of those topics which attract the online equivalent of the purple biros. However, it does show that you can have a civil conversation once the reader knows the writer will respond and the writer knows he or she is dealing with someone who actually wants to engage with the topic.
But the large picture will remain the same. The comments system is borked and there’s not really much will anywhere to change this state of affairs. You could implement several new procedures – such as make writers engage with comments, provide them with the tools to immediately delete comments from timewasters and off-topic posters (The Guardian does this very well), ensure that writers know which pieces are going to be comments-enabled etc – but there is a degree of putting-the-genie-back-in-the-bottle to all of this. It’s gone too far for such relatively minor remedial steps. Perhaps the editors at the Chicago Sun-Times are right – just turn the damn things off and let everyone snark and subtweet away to their hearts’ content instead.