The bottom half of the internet: The counter-attack to the war on online comments
Disclaimer: This post was first drafted on 6 September 2012 in response to the Telegraph article mentioned. It was then put to one side and redrafted on 22 October 2012 in response to Ben Whitelaw’s great piece on the value of comments, then put aside again for a few months. I now feel it’s finally time to hit ‘publish’ after hearing Rob Manuel’s talk at The Story conference 2013.
Rounding up a great day of speakers who highlighted the importance of narrative, emotion, feeling, playfulness and passion in storytelling – Manuel ended with a face slap of an argument against the columnists and online haters who are currently staging a ‘war on comments’ on newspaper sites, and a ‘war on trolls’. Manuel’s brilliantly executed argument – which he has written out in full on his blog – left me feeling now was the time to publish this piece and rewrite my call to action at the end. Some of the examples are contextually relevant to the various times of writing.
There is currently a war on comments. The ‘bottom half of the internet’ – the place where the regular general public go to spew hate and bile into cyberspace (or so certain people are led to believe) below the untouchable ‘above the line’ prose of columnists and real-life paid journalists is being attacked from all sides. New headlines emerge staging a ‘war on trolls‘ and tweets urge you not to read the bottom half of the internet.
This war has been building up over the last two years. Engadget announced in 2010 they were switching off comments forever, Nick Denton announced plans to reinvigorate comments on Gawker by hiding the filth and floating quality to the top, and then Helen Lewis attacked online commenters on the New Statesman, which was followed by this great post ‘in defence of online comments‘ from James Ball. Only in the last month, Tech Crunch switched back from Facebook comments after realising real names really don’t make much of a difference, only to be swamped by more ‘trolls’ and baddies.
Respected journalist Paul Carr was tweeting about the horrendous comments on a news story about a journalist who died, followed by another attack on comments from the Telegraph’s Mic Wright entitled ‘Comments are the radioactive waste of the Web,’ which Mic actually said he could write a book about. Wright’s piece is a more considered and genuinely interesting unpicking of the value of comments which, for the first time in a while, led me to feel I would like to contribute my meagre two pence to the discussion.
This, as ever with my blogposts, is written in a personal capacity and not with my Guardian hat on – I’m involved in a number of different and varied commenting communities across the web from newspaper websites to dance blogs and media outlets, although clearly my day to day dealings with commenters on guardian.co.uk has inevitably increased the depth of my understanding and experience of how comments work.
Mic’s full post is well worth a read here – but starting with his last point, and where I feel I can add some insight:
Ask yourself: how often have you genuinely learned something valuable from a comment section?
Um, just now thought I – a few minutes before reading the article in fact – and on a daily basis on the news threads at guardian.co.uk – we had some ex-army servicemen and women commenting on whether Prince Harry’s deployment in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot would put other personnel more or less at risk than his previous deployment, and the day before that we had planning officers from local authorities around the UK commenting alongside construction workers, developers and home owners about David Cameron’s planning proposals. These commenters not only add invaluable insight and knowledge to the discussion – but they drive the story forward, give the journalists and newsdesk new ideas for follow ups, add new layers to our journalism and ultimately enrich what we do – tell stories (for which we need lots of knowledge, insight, analysis and information).
Here’s a more recent example. Shiv Malik’s investigations in the government’s workfare schemes have been buoyed online by a community fiercely loyal to Shiv and the story and keen for it to progress. We had collectively more than 4,000 comments on the recent decision by judges that these work schemes (brought to the Guardian through the case of Cait Reilly which came from engaging with the community around the story) were unlawful. Many of these comments were intelligent, valuable, and added to the story – a couple were similar examples which Shiv could follow up as case studies and others led Shiv to new lines of investigation. So yes, Mic, we gain something valuable from the comment section every single day.
Sometimes it can take a while to sift out these comments from those which are less useful to us as journalists, but we have our tricks and ways and often you just need to be experienced in tuning out the rage/rants and one-liners and homing in on what is actually constructive or editorially valuable (and encouraging a better quality response). Sometimes the comment platform you use or create can help find these useful comments. To me those who moan about online comments being invaluable or a waste of time either:
- Have never commented, responded to someone in a comment, engaged in a discussion in comments or acknowledged new lines of thoughts or ideas which came from comments in their copy;
- Work on a comment platform which makes it incredibly difficult to find quality comments;
- Don’t work in a commenting environment where users are required to sign up to comprehensive and well thought out terms (or ‘community rules’) which stop racist, abusive and toxic comments getting through a dedicated moderation team
If you don’t invest in the community, you won’t get anything back.
The second point to make is that most of these posts attacking commenters start with picking up on the comments often found on news sites such as ‘you got paid to write this’, ‘first’ (posted by the first commenter…) and the classic ‘is this news?????’. A common argument from journalists and others I meet at various social events is ‘comments don’t add anything to my journalism’. But all I really hear is ‘I don’t like comments which criticise my work’. Journalists should know by now that digital publishing means you can’t get away with putting out stuff on the web and not expecting stuff to come back at you – this was also James’s point – argued much better here. Many great journalists I know have benefitted from engaging in online discussions around their stories – learning to sift through negative comments and recognise those which are genuinely constructive against those which are clearly trolling, personally abusive or actually defamatory. James writes:
The debate over “trolling”, a very small and specific subset of online communities who write provocative and offensive posts specifically to elicit reaction, has spilled over into a general sideswipe against comments. It’s one that’s misplaced.
I often think some columnists genuinely believe before online comments existed, readers would soak up their eternal wisdom through the newspaper, put down their coffee and nod in agreement. But no, I guarantee there are people who in real life read the paper, and then spew out their coffee with a mouthful of abuse towards said columnist who ‘clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about’. Online comments don’t represent a complete cross section of the general public, but they certainly capture something of it.
This Telegraph commenter under Mic’s article seems to get it:
The comments section is more realistic. Journalists generally live in a bubble, the inner surface of which reflects back their opinions to them magnified in importance, unanimity and perspicacity.
The anarchy of the comments section bursts that bubble. You get all kinds of views, and all levels of articulacy, from balanced to crazy, and near-idiot to extremely well-informed. You get great frankness and fantastic lies. You get imperturbable calmness and splenetic frenzy.
Most of all, you get perspective, which the journalists, surrounded by the group-think that their journals tend to cultivate, very often lack.
Mic is right about YouTube, though. Aggressive rudeness and idiocy abound there, though it does depend to an extent on which videos you watch. The people making those comments can’t actually reach through the cables and switches to do anything to harm you who read them, so there’s no point getting stressed about it.
Finally, and I can’t believe I’m doing this, but let’s revisit the anonymity debate, just for a very short second, as it seems to make up the most of Mic’s article. If comments didn’t allow for anonymity we wouldn’t get new lines of investigation emerging from comments like we did here. Done.
Call to action
I know my fellow community managers on news websites out there understand and know the value of comments but are either too tired with the debate or feel marginalised in a blogosphere where it’s currently in vogue to step out and say all commenters are dickheads will agree with me on some points here – but at the moment the landscape is disconcertingly bereft of anyone standing up for comments. Well, here I go. Comments are a great thing and I encourage those who work with online communities and comments to share some examples of the great stuff which can come from comments too – I’ve created a Tumblr blog to highlight a good comment from the ‘bottom half’ of the web everyday which you can submit to via Tumblr or email email@example.com and I’ll put the comment up – add a bit of context if it’s useful, and what site it’s on.
Update: 20:35 – This blogpost mistakenly said Gruber was responsible for engadget’s decision. This was wrong and has been amended.