Last week in this space [At Large: A note to the Commentariat], in addition to a repeat elaboration of the rules for the Comment feature on mvtimes.com, I included two excellent examples of thoughtful, detailed, modulated comments. The idea was to feature them as models of desirable debate among readers interested in subjects treated in news and feature stories published in The Times. They were not meant to be exclusive models. Certainly, Comment posters employ a variety of styles in their posts, some offering more substantial contributions than others. But, here were two well-composed and assertive posts on a timely subject, deserving of celebration as prototypes of one sort of worthwhile argument.
Commenters took issue with one of the two, the one by frequent commenter semmelt. One of them had discovered that semmelt had appropriated language that originated with writers other than himself (or herself). That’s outlawed in the Comment rules, but I didn’t notice the deception when I read and approved the post. It didn’t occur to me to suspect that semmelt, a frequent and aggressive commenter whose views are not widely admired among Comment readers, required strict scrutiny. My customary skepticism may have been allayed by the solid arguments offered by two toe-to-toe commenters on diverging sides of a debate. Or maybe I was just delirious that here were two comments that were neither smart alecky nor facetious, both common attributes that, in their coarsest forms, are grounds for deletion.
The sharp-eyed critics who detected semmelt’s violation were not agnostics as regards the general topic of the two exemplary posts, nor were they agnostics about semmelt and his comment history. They didn’t favor his side of the argument and they disfavored the tone of many of his comments, this one and many he’s posted in the past. Their animus is plain enough, hostility to both his views and argumentation. Semmelt was stupid enough to break the rules and open himself to their triumphant enmity.
Oh well, semmelt’s and farmer5’s posts survive — the former built with a self-inflicted wound — as exemplars of the genre.
But, what is that Comment genre anyhow? It’s not easily defined, nor managed. Indeed, in the online world of general interest newspapers, there is a nagging tug of war between commenters who are contributors, debaters, and self-moderating partisans and the trolls and fools whose participation seems founded on provocation, bluster, and abuse. None of these practitioners is in exclusive possession of the domain. There are commenters who criticize fairly, others with an engaging sense of humor, some with condolences to offer to the subjects of sad stories or congratulations to the subjects of stories of triumphs. The collection, taken in all its fullness, is often rewarding.
But the anguish among online news outlets has to do with the bad actors, whether they are nasties, blathers, or bullies. What to do about them?
Writer Toby Manhire, in an article published on a New Zealand website, described the growing antagonism toward online Comment features this way. “The backlash against online comments continues. Just the other day a post here noted Robert Fisk’s rant against their “digital poison,” together with Brian Edwards’ rage at the ‘democracy of the gutless.’ To their ranks can now be added the Guardian’s beloved Charlie Brooker, who reckons that ‘enabling reader comments is the worst thing to have happened to newspapers since – since the last worst thing that happened to newspapers.’ And something more: actual evidence, from proper scientists. Dominique Brossard and Dietram A Scheuffle, authors of a study published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, call it ‘the nasty effect.'”
Surveying the landscape of the debate, Mr. Manhire finds the other side of the coin.
“While many are spitting out the reader-comment Kool-Aid, however, those who speak their minds ‘below the line’ still have a friend in Rob Manuel, co-founder of the splendidly irreverent British website B3ta.com. Yes, there are plenty of foul and intemperate comments to be found, he says, but writers should be willing to wade through it to pick out ‘the good bits.’ What’s more, there’s a kind of class politics at play in bolting the trapdoor on the comments, argues Manuel.
“‘I can’t help but see the class issues here. It’s even in the language and the structure of the page, ‘the bottom half of the internet.’ Like the servants’ quarter in a Victorian house; below stairs. The power structure is the columnist at the top of the page, and the horrible ‘pond life’ (a phrase also commonly used by TV producers) who do it for free at the bottom. Don’t read them, the columnists say. They say nasty things about us. Well of course they say nasty things. They’re given a smaller voice by the class system encoded into the very structure of article (top) + comment (bottom). All they can do is lob word bombs up the page whilst the columnist gets to write out their entire opinion at the top of the page and beam it to 100,000s of readers via a popular news site.
“‘My advice to high profile columnists is remember you are in a lucky privileged position. Writing isn’t dreadfully specific skill — it’s taught to millions via our schooling system. And opinions? Well I’ve yet to meet people without opinions. Yes you are probably quite good at your job and you probably struggled to get there, but it’s a bit like being a successful actor or popstar — plenty of people have the ability few get the opportunity.'”
I confess, newspapering in the 1970s when I began, was a more congenial undertaking, at least from the vantage point of its practitioners. We described our work as a regular conversation with our readers, although in fact it was an extremely one-sided conversation. We told the readers what we knew, what we’d learned, and they occasionally told us what they thought, in letters that we could choose to publish or not.
For better or worse, the world’s not that kind of place any more, and the conversation today, however it develops and however lightly we moderate it, is significantly more authentic than it was in the dimming past. More authentic? Yes. Worthwhile? We’ll see.
Your views welcome.