View blog reactions Waiting for Speedway Fowler: Call for Comments?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Call for Comments?

One of the hallmarks of the new media is its interactivity. We post a story, people tell us what they think of that story. Or people post links related to that story that they think might be of interest. Or people comment on others' comments. It's a fascinating process. On the best new media sites, and I'm thinking of the top communal news aggregators here, each story becomes a running conversation, with participants riffing on various threads that emerge in the analysis of the story. At its best, this is an exhilarating process, the equivalent of a cross-country work-out for the brain. You see perspectives you hadn't previously considered. You are challenged to defend your viewpoint. You see one-liners that will be stolen later that day by late-night joke writers. It's almost always a fun ride.

Almost always.

But not every time. The nation has become so polarized, politically and culturally, that flamewars erupt almost immediately these days. Just mentioning the President is usually enough to start one. That may be just a sign of the times. Right now there is a lot more heat than light in the national discourse. I suppose it's to be expected that, after decades of dominating the airwaves, the polarizing tone of talk radio has crept into the other venues.

And there's another aspect to the comments queue that's troubling, an extremism that runs deeper than the poltics of the day. It's a really deep vein of bigotry, xenophobia and startling hatred that has been exposed by the new technology. Yahoo recently shut down their news comments feature because the tone had gotten so out of hand. A number of other newspapers have been forced to do the same, rather than indulge in censorship of any sort by weeding out objectionable comments. These people are out there, and their presence seems exaggerated on the internet. Just hang out in a Yahoo chatroom for a few minutes and you'd be left with the impression that the Know-Nothings and the 5-Percenters and the Klan are major factors in society these days. It's disconcerting and almost heartbreaking.

What's the reason? The sentiments expressed by these extremists seem to come from another time. But the folks hanging out in chatrooms and posting in comments queues aren't at the far end of the age demographic. Many were early adopters, who started throwing their opinions around in the days of Usenet. Many behaviorists say the anonymity offered by the internet provides a shot of courage to marginal personalities who would never exhibit similar tendencies in public. And of course, some of it is kids being obnoxious kids... but not all of it.

Whatever the reason, the result can be a minefield. It's tempting to respond to the more outrageous trolls and get bogged down in the resulting diversion. Usually, serious users will ignore the problem, but as the Yahoo example shows, this can have the opposite effect, with the deletion of the comments option entirely. Some of the aggregator sites use a type of user-policing, where readers can vote to hide problem comments, but that can go overboard and result in a chilling effect.

I'm not sure there's an immediate answer, but I do know that the new media has us talking to each other like never before, and that such a wide-open national dialogue can't help but raise the over-all level of sophistication among users. But it will take time...

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