Jammin’ together


Some of you won’t agree, naturally, but I think we’ve reached a tremulous equilibrium as regards online comments posted to mvtimes.com editorial material. It’s the result of the combination of stiffened rules for participation, some persistent but accommodating oversight, and the acceptance by most posters of the standard — neither as low or as high as it might be — for what will be accepted.

I think we’ve worked together on this, the newspaper and you, and the cooperation has been both interesting and fruitful. It’s been interesting to learn that there is a considerable appetite for both comment and debate among online visitors. As I’ve written, newspaper folk have been surprised to find themselves dragooned into two-way conversations with their readers. The comfortable habit had been to dish it out daily or weekly, but to take reactions in limited and polite formulations, some of which might make it to the letters columns. Finding that readers were not permanently content with browsing the editorial columns and then, content or not, tugging obediently at their common folk forelocks and stumbling silently along their way has been staggering. It turns out, lots of you have opinions about what we publish, and you like to mix it up, with us and also with your fellow online readers. It’s an occasionally wincing experience, but generally revealing of the deep currents that swirl through the community it is the newspaper’s job to know in its many and varied dimensions.

It’s fruitful because over time some of the most persistent civil irritants reveal themselves in your comments and exchanges and because some of your attitudes are notoriously, even noxiously, impolite and consequently widely unwelcome in a society that is on the whole extraordinarily pleased with itself. Where else would such attitudes go on sale and attract like-minded buyers? Or not. It’s the idea marketplace that the First Amendment had in mind, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described it in 1919. Illegal immigration, housing for low-income neighbors, irresponsible behavior by officials in either their public or private roles, alcoholism, drug use, criminal behavior and the courts, the effects of publication of the court news on private lives, or lists of delinquent property taxpayers whose lots will be taken by the towns, or delinquent town water company customers, or the need for clean energy, its cost and visual impacts, town budgets, and on and on. So, we learn about ourselves.

Disappointingly, there’s a lot of thoughtless nonsense, posturing, and squalid muck whirling round and round the net. There’s villainy, intrusion, rumor mongering, charlatanism. There’s enough of every possible notion to concentrate the best minds and fascinate the witless. And participating as we do, we join the circus.

Newspapers everywhere wrestle with the complications and disagreeable consequences of participating. In an April 11 news report by Richard Perez-Pena in The New York Times, headlined “News sites rethink anonymous online comments,” the writer explores just one of the most common issues.

“From the start,” Mr. Perez-Pena writes, “Internet users have taken for granted that the territory was both a free-for-all and a digital disguise, allowing them to revel in their power to address the world while keeping their identities concealed. A New Yorker cartoon from 1993, during the Web’s infancy, with one mutt saying to another, ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,’ became an emblem of that freedom. For years, it was the magazine’s most reproduced cartoon.”

The Times reviews several approaches to this one problem, itself the subject of many mvtimes.com posts and some of the fiercest debates. Most newspapers would like to require poster identification, but it’s impractical. Some imagine that they can cure the bad behavior by anonymous posters by giving featured positions to posters who give their names. Others will try ranking posters’ comments according to what other posters think of the quality and reliability of the posts. All anonymous, of course.

“A few news organizations, including [The New York Times],” Mr. Perez-Pena writes, “have someone review every comment before it goes online, to weed out personal attacks and bigoted comments. Some sites and prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, simply do not allow comments. Some news sites review comments after they are posted, but most say they do not have the resources to do routine policing. Many sites allow readers to flag objectionable comments for removal, and make some effort to block comments from people who have repeatedly violated the site’s standards.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Times doesn’t have the resources to consider every comment before it is posted, but we do it anyway. We also use a flagging system, but most of the complaints about posts that have been allowed are really complaints about the views of the targeted poster.

What we’ve learned is that continuous refinement, with your cooperation and interest — jammin’ together — we can make the comment feature work and work better, make it more useful and perhaps insightful, and even make it indispensable in the daily relationship between us.