Christina M. Frey
Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
Want some quick entertainment? Pull up any news story online and take a peek at the comments. The more controversial the story, the crazier the things that get posted. But it’s not all harmless fun; hiding behind a veil of anonymity, posters can get rude, abrasive, and downright offensive and threatening quite quickly. Even good-news pieces aren’t immune.
So is the solution to do what an increasing number of media sources are suggesting: remove the comments box entirely?
The information model has greatly changed since the early days of newspaper reporting. First, with higher levels of literacy and more widespread public access to news sources than ever before, the flow of information is no longer limited to the wealthy and educated few. The proliferation of a sense of leisure and the popularity of up-to-the-minute technology have only increased the opportunities to pursue information. That’s a good thing.
But there’s more. Because so much of our interaction has been globalized thanks to social media, we no longer gather at coffeehouses or in public squares to chat about the paper’s big stories. Because so many of us retrieve our news online, it makes sense that we hash out our own thoughts, beliefs, and impressions using the same platform.
It’s perhaps even necessary that we do so. After all, it’s community engagement with media that keeps journalists accountable to the public and allows us to keep an active role in information gatekeeping. Comment boxes, in theory, keep that communication flowing.
But sometimes we get angry, we fight, and things get ugly. It’s like a big, rowdy bar where anything goes; civil people can calmly discuss matters over a few beers, while at another table tempers get high and punches are thrown. A weird, turbulent, and ultimately unstable community, to be sure. But isn’t that sense of community worth preserving anyways?
Not according to some.
How good exactly is that community? That’s what media experts are starting to ask. This article suggests that the reality doesn’t live up to the dream: “people who actually read comments are a small fraction of one percent of their entire readership,” the author writes. As the article suggests, from a business perspective it’s just not worth spending the money to maintain comment boards.
Another journalist claims that banning comments would “[stop] one in a hundred people [from] creating an aura of authentic grassroots reaction.” Doesn’t sound like too much of a problem, does it?
Yet in a real-life situation, what percentage of people will, as the article puts it, “[create] an aura of authentic grassroots reaction”? I’m guessing it might be similarly low.
So what’s the solution?
Requiring real names would lower, though probably not remove entirely, the incidence of hateful or threatening comments. It might cause more commenters to think before they hit “post.” And there are new developments that seem intriguing. Linking up news media consumption with social media—like the Washington Post’s Social Reader that’s connected to Facebook accounts—keeps would-be commenters accountable to their own social circle directly as well as to the world at large, yet still preserves that opportunity to engage writers and journalists.
This kind of self-censoring might not solve all the web’s social problems, but it’s a step in the right direction.
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