Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Comments on Comments

The Tyee is launching what they call “…a new approach to readers commenting here…”

As a frequent reader, but extremely infrequent commentator (commenter?) on their website I’m very interested to see what comes of this. More often than not comment strings on blogs or online journals quickly degenerate into bickering matches that sidestep whatever article or issue started the discussion and become increasingly hurtful as they grow. Why? What gives?

I am a long-time internet user. I frequent forums. I browse blogs. I peruse postings and observe online communities and the squabbles and infighting that inevitably take place.

For the world at large the issue caught on fire when Kathy Sierra started getting some startlingly obscene and threatening comments on her blog, which led her to finding more threats and even some frightening photoshops on other blogs. The "startlingly obscene and threatening" link will take you to a story from Wired about the sources of the threats.

The double edged sword of online anonymity is razor sharp. We love the feeling of security, but we abuse the power it bestows upon us. Comments, postings, and rants often feel venomous.

It’s as if when logging on we’ve collectively come back from the Secret Wars, and as was the case for our good friend Double-P, we find the mask or costume we wear has come with a little added bonus.

Or have I got this wrong? Are the original authors and content creators more like our beloved Peter Parker with readers and playing the roll of Eddie Brock?

Our online relationships are symbiotic. While mutualism would be nice, more often than not what we wind up with is parasitic readers venting their rage – a rage free of the bounds of regular interpersonal relationships because of the strangely empowering nature of anonymity.

This is a big story right now because online journals and blogs now rival traditional media, but even back in the days of Wildcat! online tough-guyism has been an issue. The term “flamer” took on new meaning as we learned (or tried to) how to deal with a world in which everybody is an instant expert.

One site I think has it right, Something Awful. This may seem ridiculous at first when we compare the content to the material covered on “serious” sites, but if we break it down to the relationship between readers and the site the issue is clearly one of ownership or partnership from a users perspective. They've got a heap of regulars that want the community to continue to exist, and contribute to the site and community through posting in the forums. Only a certain few are actual writers for the front page, but many feel a sense of ownership or at least partnership because they have ample opportunity to contribute.

The site’s readers have spawned many an internet war, including hijacking virtual communities, mass-swarming other sites, stalking each other, and generally just being inappropriate.

The forums, unlike comments on blogs or journals, exist because of a real community. Sure it’s dysfunctional, but the site is better off because readers are more than a fake email address and a few angry comments.

Users can be put on probation, banned so they have to sign up again, and even permanently banned where steps are taken to try and ensure they will never return. People are held to account for their words and actions, something very difficult to achieve for a blog or website with no persistent community.

Sure there are the regular posters in the comments sections of sites like The DesmogBlog, Insidethecbc or The Tyee, but what other than deleting their posts can be done to weed out the bad seeds. Breaking from the article/comment format has allowed the users and moderators at Something Awful to build something more than the simple reactionary relationship we see on the web.

Perhaps then, the past is the future. The potential to spark a debate, and exist as a responsive and dynamic organization, can be found in the form of a forum.

Would users stop flying off the handle or hijacking debates? No.

But could a site deal with users who prove themselves to be reactionary hot-heads? Yes.

In any case, I'm looking forward to watching The Tyee's new approach to comments. I, like many others, am saddened when a great discussion about an article is taken over by loudmouths with an axe to grind.

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