Rage about anonymous online comments is building: change is coming

The other night I went to see Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s fine play about a photojournalist who searches for the never-identified Chinese man and hero of an iconic picture who stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks just after the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

On the way out of the theatre, I bumped into a fellow journalist. The newsroom dialogue was witty and sharp we happily agreed. And our favourite among those bits we also agreed was the crusty American editor spitting with rage about online comments below the newspaper’s online articles.

Frank, the editor in the play, is killing the search for the “tank man” because it costs too much and because the paper now has Chinese investors. Joe, the photographer, provokes this pungent speech from Frank by telling him that as an editor he’s supposed to be a guardian of a free press. Frank, sick of change, replies:

Don’t you dare sit there and suffer at me, hell I suffer too! You think I enjoy using the word ‘multi-platform’? That I think it’s desirable to employ the best writers in the country, then stick a comments section under their articles, so whatever no-neck fucker from Arkansas can chip in his five uninformed, misspelled, hateful cents because God forbid an opinion should go unvoiced? Assholes Anonymous validating eachother in packs under my banner, that’s not a democratic press, it’s a nationwide circle-jerk for imbeciles.”

Now given that this marvellously-written eruption struck a chord with two journalists in the audience, you could conclude that it’s only journalists are uncomfortable with the idea of readers getting the opportunity to criticise so directly. I really doubt that: it is precisely because journalists respected the theory behind online comments that they have been slow and cautious to draw attention to the drawbacks of the way in which anonymous comment works in practice. Open reader comments aren’t enriching news as some imagined they might and I don’t think this view is confined to journalists.

As any regular reader of this blog will know, I’ve just published a book on journalism in the digital age (see to the right of this post) and one of themes I look at is the ways in which quality journalism can stand out in the future. I predict that news media who want a quality audience will gradually edge away from allowing anonymity for comments.

I detect a dislike and resentment among editors and reporters about comments, which surfaces occasionally but not often enough to do justice to the true strength of the feeling expressed by Frank. I know just how he feels.

I’ve written two pieces for the Guardian’s opinion space Comment is Free in the past year. One of those pieces was hardly likely to be popular with Guardian readers (I was praising David Cameron for a minor contribution to the tangled follow-up to the Leveson Inquiry), so hostile comments were to be expected. But the second was generally sympathetic to the Guardian’s position over the temporary detention of David Miranda. The comments were equally grumpy and hostile.

But for or against isn’t the point. You can say that I’m a sensitive flower and that if I don’t want to read these comments, I shouldn’t write to invite them. I’ve seen, very rarely, pieces which have attracted comment strings interesting enough to slog through. I’ve no wish to stop people expressing themselves.

But a bundle of journalism says that it is more than the sum of its parts: that should be part of its promise of value. The vast majority of comments I’ve seen over the years don’t come near giving value to anyone. At best, only a tiny fraction are worth reproducing. I can’t tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that a large majority are by men (is there research about this somewhere? I guess there must be). Their views are querulous, frequently miss the point and think insult is an opinion. A high proportion of what’s appended is moronic, lazily content to hide behind witty monikers. Frank isn’t exaggerating by much.

The idea that comments would add value turned out to be false. Worse, they are slowly becoming anti-value, repelling rather than attracting users. That’s why I predict that quality news and opinion sites of the future will find a way to remove the protection of anonymity and filter contributions so as to enhance the value of what they publish.

You can, of course, disagree with my opinion right here. As you’ll gather, I prefer to hear from people who identify themselves.

 

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18 comments

  1. Colleen Murrell – I agree George that the comments sections under newspaper articles is often dreadful and I do believe that anonymity adds to people feeling free to be truly hideous – especially to female journalists and bloggers. But why do you think change is coming? It would need newspapers to insist that only proper names are used online, but it would be impossible to police this when the name given in an email address may still not be the person’s real name.

  2. I absolutely agree. I understand that comments are used to increase click-throughs to page and while online newspapers remain free this is essential to attract advertisers. As a result there seems to be a trend for some newspapers to include articles designed to provoke comments-based ‘debate’, which I find equally damaging to the reputation of online newspapers. The comments are often distressing to read and I have to remind myself constantly that they are written by a tiny proportion of the newspaper readership. I don’t read newspapers to hear the opinions of those who shout the loudest (reasonable voices are also the quietest), I read for the quality of the journalism and this gets increasingly lost in the angry pull and tug of comments. If ever there was a better argument to buy a printed newspaper this is it.

  3. I agree with you entirely, and would go even further. I believe that by and large the behaviour that has grown up around online comments is seriously harming public debate and political life on a big scale because the tone and style has now seeped into other areas of life, and because it normalises extremism. There’s mounting evidence about this. People often dismiss the nastiness as ‘just’ the comments, but there is no ‘just’ about it.

  4. I agree that the comments section is often – though not always – a vile place. One of the first rules of the Internet is ‘don’t read the comments’. My main experience is of the Guardian, from which I get a sense that many of the commenters aren’t Guardian readers: they come across a particular article either randomly or as part of a concerted campaign.

    However, I do think anonymity has its strengths. As you can tell, I use a nom de plume. I write a blog which is often about higher education matters. I work at a university and a) don’t want to be sacked, b) don’t want all my comments to be assumed to relate solely or directly to my own institution and c) don’t want to associate the university with my own points of view because we very often take different approaches.

    So that’s my perspective. But I’m more concerned about the safety of people expressing views forbidden in their societies. Imagine growing up gay in a provincial Russian town, then discovering that there’s a massive gay community online. Wonderful: until you’re required to provide your real name and the local heavies come round. Or being a feminist in Saudi Arabia, a dissenter in any repressive situation.

    I don’t know the answer to this conundrum. Some people will be vile given the freedom of anonymity, and some people will have their lives transformed. Others – like me – fall somewhere in between. I tend to think that most people are kinder and gentler than the comments sections imply… hope I’m right.

  5. I never imagined stopping or limiting these usually ridiculous, embarassing and ignorant comments was possible, so from your typewriter to gods ears, I hope you are right. The world will be a better place.

  6. Thurston Thisterthithington, Jr.

    Other than anonymity, what passes for main stream journalism isn’t much more credible, nowadays, than the comments. Sure — the “Professional Journalist” might be constrained by language, style, and editorial standards, but they fail to do much more than act as stenographers for the corporate/political juggernaut.

    At least the comments show the TRUE face of our culture.

  7. There’s always a “Nurse Ratchet” and it’s rarely worth trying to compose comments of value. Take the article for what it’s worth and move on!

  8. Making a blanket statement like the ones above seems silly. Yes, in some — perhaps many — cases comment sections can be filled with crap. And, sometimes the worst of those comments come from anonymous readers. At other times it’s not true.

    We’ve found it to be quite different on our site. Yes, if you go through our comments, you’ll find some that are awful, trollish, vile or whatever. But you’ll find plenty that are thoughtful and insightful. We have voting buttons on our comments that ask people to vote if the comments are “insightful” or “funny” — and each week we highlight the most highly voted comments. Quite frequently, anonymous commenters come out on top of both of those categories.

    At the same time, we’ve seen plenty of cases where people with “real names” have spouted ignorant crap.

    Perhaps you should be looking at the cases where things work, rather than making blanket general statements based on very small sample sizes.

  9. Dear Mr. Brock,

    You are correct. Where do the unwashed masses get off looking up your Ivy League skirt? You’re the writer. You’re the wit. They need to learn their place by reading your thoughts into their minds and shutting up. Let you do the hard thinking and so they don’t have to.

    At the same time I fear that the real change coming is the realization that journalists and professional writers really aren’t that smart or savvy. Though I am not a Luddite by nature, we need to stop the Internet or at least regulate it. It’s democratized thinking for yourself. Oh, for the good old days of centralized media control.

    Sincerely,

    Hoi Polloi

  10. It has nothing to do with anonymity. Newspapers always had comment sections, but they weren’t open to all. Editors chose which letters to include. There’s no reason they can’t do the same today. Approve the comments you want, delete the rest. That’s what editing is all about.

    Yes, technology allows any yahoo with an Internet connection to submit a comment — it doesn’t follow that you must publish all comments.

  11. “I’ve seen, very rarely, pieces which have attracted comment strings interesting enough to slog through. ”

    Then you’re a narcissistic fool with a narrow view on “interesting” as only being people who agree with you and see the innate wisdom of the pearls of wisdom you drop on them for the paltry shekels writing pays these days.

    The comment strings, being diverse in their opinion, are usually more interesting and valuable than the article. And if you have so little regard for your readers, perhaps you shouldn’t bother with them.

  12. I think you should test the following strategy:
    “I will review comments and post those that I consider meaningful, for the next X days or so. Comments that disagree with my point of view and provide a basis of fact or theory for that disagreement are welcome, and may well generate a espouse from me. ”
    Te jerks won’t get the satisfaction of seing their stupidity displayed, and afte this happens a few times, they may go on to some unregulated site, and you may get the sort of informatice discussion that is useful to readers. Surely the printed paper doesn’t publish every letter the editor receives, so why must the website?
    Let us know how it goes, eh?

  13. One important and useful purpose of comment sections is to remind us of the variety of perspectives as well of the unfathomable depth of human stupidity. Many folks who read articles which I honestly believe should attract intellects of some caliber, strike me with their complete inability to stimulate intelligent debate. This gives me pause whenever I attempt to take an optimistic look at human nature. I believe the line should be drawn to limit hateful and harmful attacks to individuals. But stopping people, no matter how thick they may be, from commenting will not serve the public good.

  14. When I was a journalist — a simple business/tech reporter — my editor would ask me to get those %^#&@ “reax” quotes. I would have to ask random people what they thought of something. End result was: “Jane Smith, who was shopping at the mall, said, ‘I can see how the President’s plan will create jobs’.”

    Useless filler and flotsam. Just like comments sections. Jane Smith added nothing to the story. Comments are a little better in that they tell the author that people are reading the piece — but Tumblr has a better system for getting that kind of feedback.

    Bottom line: Sites allow comments because they think they’re supposed to.

  15. Even if you completely remove a comments section from the article, they will just go elsewhere. You can’t stop anonymous comments about your article – on twitter, other blogs, etc. Once they move off site, you will have less information about what your readers are saying about your article.

    If you keep comments and closely moderate them, it will take a lot of work and impose your bias on the comments. Over time, especially with less scrupulous editors, comments will tend toward the more sycophantic and the forum will become more of an echo chamber. In practice among large organizations, it seems that the allowed comments become those which fit the consensus narrative such as ‘Ivy league elitist vs no-neck knucklehead’ while views that don’t fit the false dichotomy of the narrative get taken out. I am one to post radical ideas, but I never insult or use ad hominem arguments and I frequently find my comments censored from major new outlets (less so personal blogs).

    Basically, who are you to decide what is of value to reproduce and what should be lost? The best way to avoid this dilemma would be to have a very clear public policy about what types of comments will be removed.

    One final thought is what do you mean by anonymous, if all you need is an email address to establish an ‘identity’ – who cares? Almost anyone can easily get a free personally untraceable email address in a matter of minutes.

  16. thank you