Magazine article Information Today

A Few Comments ... about Comments

Magazine article Information Today

A Few Comments ... about Comments

Article excerpt

Anyone who has worked in a public library knows that there is something--in every library somewhere--that will offend someone. But as a profession, we strive to be equal opportunity offenders.

I object to books advocating creationism and vapid celebrity biographies. Perhaps you think it's disgraceful for a public library to stock Fifty Shades of Grey; others object to the inclusion of Mein Kampf, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, or the collected works of Karl Marx.

I like to think of the public library as a marketplace ofideas. Newspaper website comment sections are also a marketplace of ideas, but most of them are, alas, absolutely dreadful. Regardless of the content of the story, the commenters divide themselves into numerous ideological camps: Blame the victim, blame society, blame the government, blame poor parenting, blame Obama (always), blame Mrs. Obama (sometimes), blame the media, blame technology, blame "young people today," blame "greedy Baby Boomers," blame "fat cat millionaires," blame China, blame the political system, blame excessive taxation and/or regulation, blame "corporations run amok," blame "the social safety net" (or the lack thereof), blame global warming, blame genetically modified food ... you get the idea.

And then there's the name-calling. I'm not sure why the word "moron" has evolved as the epithet of choice in the vast majority of newspaper comment sections, but I find it interesting to observe how soon it emerges in any given comment thread. I am reminded of Godwin's Law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

An Ancient Internet Era

Mike Godwin, an early attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, came up with this maxim as a result of disgust over uncivil online discourse in the 1990s, which were ancient times in the internet era. There were no online newspaper comment sections then, but there were Usenet newsgroups, bulletin board systems, and online forums such as The WELL.


Just getting online in those days was a major production involving personal computers (which were far from ubiquitous) and dial-up modems (which could be complicated and balky). Given the technological constraints, there was a certain element of self-selection when it came to online discussion forums. People really had to want to be there in the thick of it.

Now, there are thousands, maybe millions, of people who fire off a few zingers in the comment sections before they've even had their first cup of coffee in the morning. (Come to think of it, this may explain--at least in part--the vituperative nature of so many comments.)

'Encouraging Interaction'

Having worked at a newspaper, I am familiar with the party line about comment sections "encouraging interaction." But just about everyone knows the real issue here is eyeballs. Having more of them means the publication can charge more for its online ads, though in reality, this hasn't exactly been a spectacularly successful business model. Still, every time someone pops into a comment section to call someone else a moron--ding! It's another page view.

A good analogy might be public officials who claim that red light cameras and speed cameras promote safety. …

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