PLEDGE NOW
Tech

The quality and decorum of online interactions matters, writes Ethan Gilsdorf. Otherwise, we’re all just screaming at the top of our lungs. (Thomas Lefebvre/Unsplash)

A friend of mine who is a fellow writer texted me: “Question for you, regarding sanity. When you get nasty troll-ish responses to [your] work … how to handle [it]?”

He’s talking about the “comment” sections that are appended, like an annoying sidekick, to virtually every scrap of content published online these days. Try to shrug off the noxious ones, I counsel him. Assume that for every negative comment you read, 100 folks wanted to high five you, but weren’t inspired to write.

I feel his pain. I receive unpleasant remarks in response to things I write all the time.

But don’t feel sorry for me or my friend. We can deal with the emotional impact. Rather, I’m concerned that these comment forums have been hijacked by the rude, anti-social and just plain moronic. Sure, civilized discourse can be found in these free-for-all gladiatorial arenas, but even the positive comments are typically half-baked or knee-jerk. And increasingly, I see ad hominem attacks, “you’re a loser” name-calling, and other flippant, Donald Trump-style playground insults that have come to pass for grown-up debate in America.

Give people a no-consequences wall of anonymity to hide behind and what do you expect?

That’s why I’m against these comment sections. I say, shut them all down.

Here at Cognoscenti, where readers are asked to “Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site” (and those rules include “If you can’t be polite, don’t say it” and “Do not ‘feed’ the trolls”), snide and mean-spirited comments still sneak in. Quoting from a random selection of comments I’ve received: “This isn’t the dumbest thing I’ve ever read…but it’s right up there”; “Oh please”; and “yaaaaaawwwwnnn.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by this poisonous atmosphere. We need to remember what Neil Postman said in his prescient book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” (published way back in 1993, around “the birth” of the Internet). Technology is not neutral. “Its functions follow from its form,” he writes. “It does what it is designed to do.” Give people a no-consequences wall of anonymity to hide behind and what do you expect? The comment section enables the inane verbal assault.

Plus, everywhere we look, we’re asked to weigh in. “We live in a world in which everything can be commented on,” writes Northeastern professor Joseph Reagle in “Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web.” Opinion overload opens the door for the boorish.

Of course, I can see the appeal of online comments. Publications want to engage their audience (a.k.a., get page views, and sell more ads). Comments forums potentially give every reader a voice, compared the pre-digital days when, to respond to a newspaper or magazine story, you had to write a letter and it had to be chosen and printed.

But to “join the conversation,” you also had to provide a verifiable name, address and phone number. In other words, you had to be accountable. You had to take the time to write out your insane rant, stuff it into an envelope and spend the price of a postage stamp to get satisfaction. Plus, the snail-like speeds of the U.S. Postal Service did not allow for flame wars.

Imagine a major newspaper publishing the equivalent of “!@#$%^&!!” as a legitimate letter to the editor. And yet this sort of asinine dialogue happens all the time online. Moderators can only do so much.

As a result, many publications have banned anonymous comments on their sites. Popular Science led the charge in 2013, explaining its decision this way:

“[We are] as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

The Chicago Sun-Times, Bloomberg, The Verge, Reuters, Vice’s Motherboard and USA Today’s sports site, For the Win, are among many other media outlets that have suspended comments. In December, the Toronto Star joined their ranks, choosing instead to “promot[e]and showcas[e]” their readers’ social media feedback.

Not a bad idea: At least Twitter and Facebook can mitigate the problem by making it much harder to act out anonymously. There have been other fixes. The Atlantic uses a curated page called “Notes” that selects readers’ comments, photos and other feedback. On some sites, like Quartz, readers can “annotate” an article with their comments; Digg moderates Q&As between readers and writers (a la Reddit’s Ask Me Anything). A consortium of media experts called The Coral Project is testing other ideas “to build better communities” around journalism.

Imagine a major newspaper publishing the equivalent of “!@#$%^&!!” as a legitimate letter to the editor.

Some critics, like TechDirt, say closing comments sections means publications want “a muzzled readership,” sarcastically adding that editors don’t want to get their “loafers dirty interacting with the unwashed masses.”

I don’t buy that free speech gripe. The quality and decorum of the interaction among these “unwashed masses” matters. Otherwise, we’re all just screaming at the top of our lungs.

Until some other system evolves, Reagle suggests we “find ways to develop a robust self-esteem that can handle ubiquitous comment.” I’m not so sure that’s the answer.

Still, while I remain opposed to online comments, I paradoxically feel drawn to them. I’ll sift through the trash-talk for nuggets of gold. But I do so at my own peril. Because the more mean-spirited and anti-social comments I absorb, the more likely they are to overwhelm the considerate ones. Or, as my friend so wisely put it: “The nice responses you fast forget.”

Dear reader: I await your thoughts and rejoinders below.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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