Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it

Gangs-of-West-Side-Story

Many of the problems of the news media—an oligopolistic, centralized corporate ownership, a “business” orientation that reflects the world view of the managerial and ownership classes while ignoring the concerns of working people, overpaid celebrity reporters with “insider” status, reporting that uses false equivalency to present “balance,” and so much more—were well in place by the 1990s, and so the arrival of the internet was an godsend for democracy. Suddenly, anyone and everyone could present their views, unfiltered.

The explosion of blogging after the September 11 attacks was mostly an echo chamber of crazed right-wing American “war bloggers” circle-jerking for the Iraq War, but within a few years the left had found its footing as well, and now the internet is a thriving marketplace in ideas around society, politics, arts, sex, culture, you name it. Yeah, democracy.

Our world is better because so many people make use of their time and knowledge to blog. But bloggers by and large aren’t reporters. Reporting requires another set of skills and—and this is important—is a full-time job that requires pay, and costs money. Alas, the internet presented challenges for the traditional news outlets that hire reporters. Placing the content of the newspaper online for free is great for informing the public, but how does it support a newsroom of 100 reporters?

The solution was web advertising, which ultimately meant chasing hits. There are lots of strategies for chasing hits, all of them annoying: dumbing down content, as I discussed yesterday, but also (as Dave mentions in the comments), using multiple pages for a single article, bombarding readers with “related content,” and more.

The most insidious way to chase hits, however, was the creation of open-ended comment sections. Newspapers used to vet letters to the editors, but the vetting was ditched in pursuit of ever more hits. The idea was that people would comment on a news article, then come back again and again to respond to other comments, to re-iterate the original comment and so forth. One active commenter could be responsible for dozens of “hits” on a single news article.

In theory, open comments can create community, encourage a free exchange of ideas, and lead to a better informed readership.

Ha. Theory is one thing, reality a different. We all know that comment sections are the cesspool of the internet. Rather than creating community, they are the petri dishes for hatred, racism, sexism, stalking and ugly personal attacks. Rather than the respectful exchange of ideas, they are the domain of anonymous bullies shouting down others and paid trolling. Rather than getting better information, we get discredited psuedoscience, climate change denialism, fake facts, false dichotomies, and worse.

What’s happened is that instead of addressing the old set of problems—oligopolistic ownership and the rest—news media simply grafted themselves onto the internet, chasing web hits via the comment sections as a business model, while using the empty promise of democratizing as cover. We’re all the worse for it.

So what do we do? Well, for the news site I’m developing, there will be a different commenting policy: commenting will be limited to subscribers, who must use their real names, and all comments will be pre-moderated. (The moderation is a requirement of the libel insurance I’m using, but I think it’s a good idea nonetheless.)

Likely, this will mean far fewer comments than would otherwise show up. So be it. This is another upside of a subscription-based business model: I don’t have to chase web hits and therefore don’t need to host yet another web-based platform for unbridled hatred and stupidity. I hope that a community develops among the moderated comments from named people, but I’d rather have no comments at all than a cesspool.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

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14 comments

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  1. Tim, that is an excellent policy on comments and the use of real names. I hope it catches on! One of my ongoing beefs with the Coast is their inclusion of both named and anonymous letters to the editor. I’m sure that an analysis would show that the anonymous letters are much more likely to be insulting, mean, and uninformed. People should have to stand publicly behind their comments.

  2. “commenting will be limited to subscribers, who must use their real names, and all comments will be pre-moderated”: Given you’ll have subscribers, limiting commenting to them probably will reduce trolling and shilling a great deal; presumably, few trolls and shills will be willing to pay. For sites without paying customers, I suspect pre-moderating commenters, if not every single comment, is the key to valuable comment threads. Orthonymity (i.e., demanding real names) doesn’t hurt, but there are sites that do fine without it. (As one such site, Wonkette, declares, “[I]f you are a new commenter, your comment may never appear. This is probably because we hate you.” As usual for Wonkette, that’s snarky, but Wonkette comment threads tend to be remarkably good for a political site – plenty of snarky banter, but some genuine thoughtfulness too – and some of the regular commenters have been at it for many years.)

    Anyhow, best wishes for the new venture. I’m nowhere near Halifax, but I like what I’ve seen from you.

    1. I meant to add, limiting to subscribers seems less than ideal but okay. But perhaps your subscribers should be allowed to pick a pseudonym.

  3. All good points. This is increasingly noticeable everywhere really. (The cesspool I mean.)

    But I have to say, judging by what I’ve seen people post in comments using their real name, often their real Facebook identity, it doesn’t seem likely forcing use of real names will prevent much. Many are perfectly willing to post awful things under their real name if it’s allowed.
    And plenty of people who are anonymous on the internet, or who use internet handles, are sensible & considerate, or at least behave themselves in various forums and comments sections, that are well moderated.

    Oh… I guess, moderation is really the only answer!!

    Because let’s face it. OFF the internet… Some people commit crimes. With their own faces & names. Requiring people to register, say with the DMV, get a license, and register their car & have a license plate, etc… It doesn’t stop people from committing traffic violations.
    It makes it easier to police them, and deliver consequences, when they do.
    It’s also a hurdle where people learn the rules, and the seed of potential consequences is planted in the mind.

    Requiring registration to comment works much the same way.
    Making policing easier is, of course valid, and an efficient tool.

    Consequences are the key.
    (Having their comment not appear, or perhaps even being banned.)
    Either believing there will be some consequence, which will dissuade most people, or for the die-hard determined, being stopped with a consequence after they try it.

    That said, while I accept registration & drivers licensing as an acceptable method to stop lawlessness on the roads when we drive… I do not, however, want to drive around town in a car that has a big sign on it listing for all I interact with, my full name, my address, my phone number, and my place of work. I feel fairly anonymous on the roads… though not to police, of course. I don’t see why we can’t have that same type of situation on the internet. I don’t actively hide my identity on the internet. Just like I don’t actively hide my identity when I go to the grocery store. But I also don’t want to actively broadcast all my details (irrelevant & sensitive, sacred & profane), to everyone I casually interact with at the deli, in a check out line, on the turnpike, or on a web site.

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