Are comments valuable or a waste of time? Yes

A column by Judith Timson in the Globe and Mail this week got me thinking again (not like I ever really stop) about comments on blogs and news stories and other places, and the value that they bring. Judith’s column was in many ways a lament for the death of civilized discourse, and a criticism of the no-holds-barred comments that appear at many media sites — including the Globe’s. Not surprisingly, she mentioned the book Snark, by David Denby, which is concerned with the same decline-of-civilization-as-we-know-it kind of argument. As you’ve probably guessed already, I disagree with that view.

In many ways, comments are like version 1.0 of community — the lowest common denominator of community, at least for a mainstream media site like the Globe’s. You can post a comment, never really engage with anyone, say whatever you want and not have to reap the consequences (at least with an anonymous system like we have, which I have defended before for a variety of reasons), and so on.

I would be the first to admit that our comments don’t always achieve the level of discourse that I — and the Globe as a whole — would like them to. We get a lot of “drive-bys,” as I like to call them, in which people just spray-paint offensive comments or insults directed at the subjects of a particular story, or in many cases the writers. We are working on ways of dealing with that kind of thing (as I’ve described in previous posts on the subject), including comment voting and other “reputation management” tools that I hope will allow our community of readers to promote the positive and de-emphasize the negative. But I think there is an important principle attached to having comments, and not just having them but actively engaging with readers who make honest and well-intentioned comments.

For many people — including a number who work at the Globe — this has little or no value. In fact, they believe that comments substantially detract from the integrity and brand value of what we do, and effectively drag us down into the mudpit with the yahoos and nutjobs. When they aren’t busy ignoring them, they read them and focus on the worst, and become incensed about how we allow these kinds of comments to be published on our site. I talked about this a bit during a recent interview on Q, the CBC radio show hosted by Jian Ghomeshi (there are also plenty of legal issues surrounding libel, etc. and the liability thereof, which we didn’t really have time to get into, mostly because there is no law on that in Canada as yet).

For some of our writers — rightly or wrongly — interacting with readers in any kind of direct way is just not something they feel comfortable with. They are happy to respond to the occasional email, or to engage with someone they meet at a social event, but comments are just too chaotic and foreign in some sense. I think many would much rather that things were still one-way, rather than always a “conversation.” And my sense is that for many, the comments we get don’t really jibe with their vision of what our readers are like (or ought to be like), and so they kind of pretend that they aren’t there, in the same way that people try to ignore an elephant in the room.

Are there plenty of cruel remarks in our comments? Sure there are. And there are plenty of thoughtful and pointed and intelligent and interesting (although occasionally not grammatical) comments as well. Comments reveal the full spectrum of humanity in all of its glory, and all of its unpleasantness. As one commenter on Judith’s column put it: “The comments are great! I want zero ‘moderation’ on the only vehicle for true free speech to ever exist in human history. The anonymity enables people to say EXACTLY what they REALLY think, with no social censure. People are not always ‘nice’, sometimes they are angry, and bitter, and cruel, and stupid – these things are all important aspects of human nature.”

Obviously, we’re not going to allow abusive and offensive behaviour in the comments on our stories — but we don’t want to turn them into an antiseptic, unfeeling, excessively rule-bound, overly decorous parlour-room conversation either. Finding a place in between those two extremes is the challenge, but it is a challenge that I for one think is worth taking on.

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