Almost every time I read a particularly interesting article or blog post, I get sucked into the accompanying comments section hoping to find a stimulating conversation on the topic at hand. Almost every time I am disappointed. Does anybody ever find these threads useful? I know it’s silly to expect great discourse with random strangers but does it always have to devolve into such a wasteland of trolls, flamewars and embedded advertising? Is it even reasonable to expect a civilized dialog within such a framework?
I know, this is old news for anyone who lives and breathes social media but for less savvy folks trying to have a serious discussion online it can be a big barrier to participation. If I know that every conversation is going to end with obscenities and insults, why join in? Many sites respond to the issue by introducing some form of moderation or requiring people to register before they can post anything. This reduces the level of anonymity and theoretically boosts the level of responsibility that people feel for their own comments.
However, some people feel that these approaches put an unnecessary muzzle on commentators. Matt Zoller Seitz over at Salon defends anonymous comments as a way to better understand our society:
“… for all the downsides of comments-thread anonymity, there’s a major upside: It shows us the American id in all its snaggletoothed, pustulent glory, with a transparency that didn’t exist before the Internet. And in its rather twisted way, that’s a public service.”
“It’s impossible for anyone who reads unmoderated comments threads on large websites to argue that racism, sexism or anti-Semitism are no longer problems in America, or that the educational system is not as bad as people say or that deep down most people are good at heart.”
While I respect his reasoning, I don’t think that all sites should follow these guidelines. Surely, we as a society already know that there are plenty of blowhards out there who just want to insult people and stifle conversation. Do we really need to be reminded of that every time we watch a YouTube video or check the weather? Which is more of a problem … having someone self-censor themselves because their names are associated with what they write or having someone take themselves out of the conversation entirely because they are being harassed or annoyed?
- November 15, 2010 – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/opinion/20dowd.html?_r=1&hp
- November 30, 2010 – A blogger on the NYT site (Julie Zhuo, product design manager at Facebook) discussed some of the issues surrounding anonymity on the web here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/opinion/30zhuo.html?_r=1&ref=global-home. She brought up several good points, including the fact that “[p]sychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior … [p]eople — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.” and “[w]ell-designed commenting systems should … aim to highlight thoughtful and valuable opinions while letting trollish ones sink into oblivion.”
- May 18, 2011 – For a hilarious take on comments, check out Howard Troxler’s “what if” scenario on the Declaration of Independence: http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/if-there-were-online-comments-on-the-declaration-of-independence/1169722.
- January 4, 2013 – Another reason to dislike comments: the tone of comments actually affects how people take in information (link: http://www.jsonline.com/features/health/online-comments-hurt-science-understanding-study-finds-ib88cor-185610641.html).
- January 7, 2014 – See also: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/when-misogynist-trolls-make-journalism-miserable-for-women/282862/.
- April 7, 2014 – Jon Lovett and the Culture of Shut Up (link: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/the-culture-of-shut-up/360239/)
- June 6, 2014 – The Atlantic and why web sites are better without comments (link: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/internet-comments-and-perceptions-of-quality/371862/)
- August 20, 2014 – The NYT and whether anonymity gives people too much license to harass others online (link: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/08/19/the-war-against-online-trolls)
- November 28, 2014 – Slate and anonymous commentators (link: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/11/internet_trolls_pose_a_threat_internet_commentators_shouldn_t_be_anonymous.html)