Engagement Vs Mean People – the everlasting struggle of the comment box

Typing on a keyboard - internet comments So the Guardian reporting today that the Chicago Sun Times was temporarily closing web comments, because they are all too often filled with a “morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.”

Comments at CST are going on holiday for a while, likely to return with a new tan, a much younger boyfriend and a credit card groaning from exchange rate purchases.

And before I take this metaphor too far and end up accidentally insulting pretty much everyone, my point is thus: It’s all well and good saying that you will come up with a “new commenting system we hope will not only allow for free discussion, but encourage increased quality of commentary,” but no matter how much you put into it what you will have is still a commenting system – tarted up with extra security perhaps or some kind of ID authenticator (because we all know bullies only bully when they’re anonymous), or maybe even a limited userbase of known “nice” users (because limiting speech online has always worked well), but still, in the end, a COMMENTING system.

You know. For comments. And a commenting system is a commenting system is a commenting system.

It can be threaded or unthreaded, there can be likes or upvotes, there can be authorised IDs or anonymous usernames – but it is still a commenting system.

There was a great episode in Aaron Sorkin’s first season of The Newsroom, a show I adore, despite knowing from several people who work in live news that it is nothing like that and despite the fact that although Sorkin is my favourite screenwriter of all time, he has started to show some unpleasant habits in how he presents his female characters.

But anyway, there’s a particular scene in which Jeff Daniels as anchor man Will McAvoy declares he’s going to single handedly fix the internet.  It’s a good scene, and it highlights how frustrating dealing with internet comments can be because they are so often a) anonymous and b) unfairly extreme reactions.

The fictional team at Newsnight decide they will fix this by implementing a stringent ID system on their commenting system so that no one can hide behind a pseudonym and everyone will know who has said what, and this will make everyone nicer and also somehow, smarter (I wasn’t quite clear about how that would happen).

Later in the show Will receives a death threat via one of the comment threads that has, very obviously, been hacked into and the ID spoofed. And then begins one of the more irritating subplots of the first season of tracking down the hacker, though it does involve Dev Patel who I am happy to see continues to be paid to be goofy and adorable and techy all at once.

But my point is this: there is no perfect commenting system.

People will always want to be sods and say nasty things (my personal theory about this is that it’s like yelling at the TV –  you do it when the people on the goggle box do something stupid be it missing a crucial goal, sleeping with the wrong person or running up the stairs when they should be going out the front door.  We can say all we like and the little people in the box can’t hear us and can’t be hurt, and it’s funny.  Somehow this make us forget that all the people on the other side of the box, or screen as it is now, are real and can be hurt because I’ve read so many accounts of people who actually meet and confront their trolls and the trolls are so confused that what they have done has hurt someone because it was fun for them. But then on the other hand, some people are arseholes). And there’s very little you can do about unless you

  1. turn the comments off entirely
  2. pay someone to moderate them very well

And no one wants to do 1 because commenting users are engaged users and engaged users are how we sell advertising, and no one wants to do 2 or at least not enough of 2 to make it truly effective because we would like the money made from advertising to be profit and not just lost in a larger salary pool.

And so we have the endless struggle.

We all want comments, but we don’t want trolls, because trolls don’t comment they enrage.

But we don’t seem to be willing to pay for the moderation that is needed to ensure a troll-free comment stream. Even on the Guardian’s CiF trolls get through. I remember being at a conference where a social media specialist from The Telegraph talked about having the block one single troll over 50 times. He just always found another way in.

Because that’s what trolls do. They always find another way in.

And so good luck to you Chicago Sun Times. I await your new and improved (and not at all just tanned and tarted up version of your old) comment system with baited breath. But I seriously doubt this is a problem we’re going to solve anytime soon.

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