Don Rogers: Clipping comment dreck
I never understood the appeal of online comments.
The reading is dreary, a slog. Here and there someone will post something insightful, ask a good question, inject humor. These oases are so rare, though. Here is a desert, where thought dries up, an optimist will die of thirst.
And who could bear to write these comments, pecking at the same hot button topics over and over again, making the same tiresome points, engaging in a debate style best left behind in middle school, mostly throwing sand at other commenters?
Among these are people who would not get the joke in The New Yorker cartoon of the guy standing in the passenger section of the airliner with his hand up, shouting: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly this plane?”
That is to say, here is an attitude that permeates comments sections everywhere. Right, left, the smartest people in the room, elbows out so everyone knows, looking for … what?
There are the Trumpists, of course. Also social justice warriors who find their field of battle in the comment threads. No shortage of outraged progressives. Wait, that’s not fair. Everyone’s outraged in this space.
And the commenters breathless with secret knowledge because the news is always wrong — the lamestream news media, the conservative press, the corporate, the elitist, the pick-yer-agenda on and on.
Apparently an axiom for some is that if something has a remote chance of being possible, it must absolutely be true, a kind of inverse Occam’s Razor. If not possible, it must be true anyway if it conforms with a particular partisan trope. “Facts” are mutable. Ideology is forever, frozen diamond hard.
Hmmm, I might not have the best attitude, so uncharitable to fellow human beings just trying to make sense of this world. Plainly, commenters get something from this. A sense of righting wrongs, working out what they think, feeling seen, venting, victorious in debate, such as it is?
It’s not about persuasion. No one is trying very hard to persuade, and this isn’t how you would do it anyway. The appeal for the regulars looks more like the thrill of the spat. Those dueling hits of dopamine and cortisol, the cocktail that drives cable.
I bring this up because we are on the cusp of making some changes in moderating the comments section of our news websites.
The platform we use, Viafoura, believes they can help steer the conversation in a more wholesome, civil direction. That is, make comments sections worth reading with more thoughtful discussions.
I’m skeptical but willing. The cost in time going through the threads has been high enough that we’ve taken a lighter hand with incivility. That seems fine with regulars who routinely pepper their comments with insults.
The offer is well-timed because another option is turning the comments feature off, which I’ll confess I do find tempting. For the lower grade of these dialogues, they are a time suck to go through and moderate, and depressing to read.
Viafoura will have humans looking over comments in real time, which should cut down on the gap between the automatic filter holding up a post and human judgment. We’ll still have oversight, but I’m looking forward to putting their experience and expertise to work.
This might not be such good news for the current regulars, primarily in The Union, who like to let the sand fly. I’ve gone with letting too much go when they at least are talking about issues, too.
Lately, I’ve thought about cutting off all the snark to see how that might shape comments over time. The time commitment for that seemed daunting, though, for such a small slice of our readership.
Turns out we’re far from alone in our dilemma. This is common across our company, our industry, everywhere that uses online comments.
I don’t much mind if the sandbox bullies and trolls, the conspiracy nuts and other cranks find somewhere else to trade their messages. No worries if comments dry up completely. That would be a small step up from way, way too much of what’s there now.
It’s worth the chance that a new seed may grow green and good with more attentive cultivation than we can apply now, on our own. I still have a little hope.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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