Click Here to Leave a Comment

Both Dan Gilmore, in his book We the Media, and Cory Doctorow, et al., in their book Essential Blogging, make similar arguments about the benefits of blogs and digital news concerning the interactive nature and immediacy of digital media. Information and opinions can be posted without outside interference immediately and can be commented upon by any and all.

For Gilmore, this is a particular strength of blogs – the ability to let the readers serve as editors, whether that is in the form of Wikis or simply the comments readers leave for particular blog or news posts. Doctorow, et al., and Gilmore see this process as transparent. Doctorow states that he and his partner in the blog Boing Boing read the comments left by readers and makes corrections that can be viewed by readers via the use of strikethrough text. I doubt, however, this is the case for most bloggers who do not make the corrections to errors or fallacies in their posts.

We’ve all read blogs and have seen the links that take you to the comments left by readers. How many of us actually follow those links to read the comments? Do the bloggers read their comments? Do they act on them? Do the comments spur them to action, whether that means responding to arguments for or against or to further investigate a particular issue raised by a reader?

Well, I have read the comments left on blogs and news sites, and let me tell you, what I’ve seen isn’t pretty. More often than not, the comments are not well-reasoned arguments or notes on inaccuracies in the blog or articles. Instead, many who post comments seem to be in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage.

The internet has immense potential as a tool for mobilization and for hashing out ideas, but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands.

Do people see their role on the Internet to simply point out what is wrong, or do they use the internet to collaborate with to solve problems?

The Chicago Tribune finally got fed up with the comments left on its Web site. This week the Tribune shut down comment boards for all political news stories, an opinion column about Muslims, a story about the Illinois governor, and a story about a violent crime in which a child was killed. Apparently, these are part of a growing list of topics that include race, immigration, and crime “that bring out anonymous writers who are so nasty, obscene and racist that the boards were beginning to read like a community of foul-mouthed bigots.”

You can go beyond the blogs and to the Web sites of the major newspapers and ask the same questions. Do any of the papers actually review or respond to the comments posted?
Even more important, how many newspaper or television Web sites have a mechanism through which readers can post comments to the article’s author or to editors. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2007 states that digital journalism has not fully exploited the potential for users to participate by commenting and adding their own voice to the information.

The study found, for example, that the Web site of the local CBS affiliate in Dallas-Forth Worth is lacking in this area (or was when this study was done). “There are no user forums, comments or polls. There is no way to email the correspondent of a report, nor are there lists of the most viewed or emailed stories. There is a section at the bottom of the site that asks readers, “Got an Idea for a Story?” The link, however, only prompts an e-mail window.” Low marks were also given to CBS News’s site.

While I agree that one of the benefits of the digital age is the ability to interact and participate in online discussions, to be a part of an online community, I think the immediacy of the technology does not give people time to think through what they wind up posting.

Posting a comment on a blog or on a news site is somewhat like responding to an email message that really struck a nerve. I think we all have been in a situation where, in a fit of pique, you fire off a message without thinking about the tone of your note. Your emotions are running high, and in the heat of the moment you type out a sarcastic or indignant missive and hit the Send button. Then you see what you wrote, but it’s too late. Your message is out there.

Doctorow, et al., make the argument that the “old” way of writing articles and getting reader feedback to weeks or months as the written material wended its way through editors and editorial committees. The authors bemoan the fact that letters to the editor can take months to appear in print and for letter-writer comments to make their way back to the journalist.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Editors serve a vital function, as does time.

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2 Responses to “Click Here to Leave a Comment”

  1. Parker Says:

    Good post. As a former online editor at a large newspaper, I can tell you that policing bigoted comments quickly becomes a huge drain of time and life for thinly stretched employees. Any story in which a minority commited a crime, stories about gays and lesbians, stories about people of the Muslim faith, stories featuring photos of attractive women, etc., were all soon inundated by hateful comments. We referred to these commenters as Guys In Their Moms’ Basements — a guess as to the low quality of life they must enjoy as a result of such low intellect.

    My guess is most newsrooms conclude that their people’s time is better spent improving the product than babysitting such cretins. In the process, unfortunately, immediate thoughtful discussion falls victim. Disabling comments, and crippling the ability to foster reader discussion, is not something editors take lightly.

  2. bytesizedwords Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I think anytime you open up the floor to comments, you have to expect the worst. I can imagine how difficult it is when you are working with so few staff and can’t cull the wheat from the chaff. It’s too bad, really, since the back and forth afforded by Internet makes for lively discussions and really can engage your readership.

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