Comment is F**ked

First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies.

As Steve Yelvington said this week:

Editors, please listen. If you’re not rethinking your entire content strategy around participative principles, you’re placing your future at risk.

The Guardian seems to understand this need for participation to be integrated with its traditional content, but as with many media companies: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles. Ben Hammersley, European alpha geek and one of the people behind CiF, knew there would be risks:

Perhaps the most prominent liberal newspaper in the anglophone world, opening a weblog for comment and opinion, with free and open user commenting is, to put it mildly, asking for trouble. … This means that we have to employ a whole combination of technological and social countermeasures to make sure that the handful of trolls do not, as they say, ruin it for the rest of us. Frankly, it gives me the fear.

Ben was right to be concerned. Honestly, I wish there were a clearer headed assessment of the risks involved with blogging by media companies. Don’t get me wrong. I think that media companies should blog, but the risks aren’t as simple as they may appear and something on the scale of CiF is of course going to have problems. The Guardian appear to have focused mainly on the risks posed by commenters and have put a lot of energy into figuring out how they can have open comments without falling foul of UK libel law.

But people are people, and you are bound to get abusive, rude or irrelevant comments. Any publicly commentable website will reflect the cross-section of society that reads it, so it’s inevitable that some comments will not be as civil and insightful as we would prefer. Trolls happen.

Just this week, Engadget had to temporarily shut off its comments “because of the unacceptable level of noise / spam / junk / flaming / rudeness going on throughout our boards”.

Where the Guardian has fallen over is in their assessment of the risks posed by their choice of columnist to blog on CiF. Rather than thinking about who would make a really good blogger, they seem to have made the same mistake as the rest of the big media who have tried their hand at blogging: They’ve given their biggest names blogs, despite the fact that these people have no idea how to. Now a bit of a tiff has kicked off between the Guardian’s stable of columnists, the commenters on Comment is Free and the bloggers there. (Thanks to my colleague Nick Reynolds at the BBC who blogged about this internally and brought it to my attention.)

Catherine Bennett writes a column so full of uninformed generalisations about blogging in the UK, specifically political blogging, as to completely lack credibility. She seems to be trying to discredit the Euston Manifesto, a net-born political movement in the UK, by painting it as the creation of a sexually obsessed, semi-literate male-dominated blogging clique. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link to the Manifesto and draw your own conclusions.

Another Guardian columnist, Jackie Ashley, defends professional columnists, and says: “To those of you who think you know more than I do, I’m eager to hear the arguments: just don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.” Polly Toynbee asks commentors: “Who are you all? Why don’t you stop hiding behind your pseudonyms and tell us about yourselves?”

Ms Toynbee why don’t you step out from behind your byline and tell us a little about yourself instead of belittling us? It’s usually worked for me when trying to dampen an online flame war.

I’m sitting here reading her column, and I really don’t understand how she expected this to put out the fires. She asks for civility and for people to tell us who they are, but then she says of one of her anonymous detractors:

What do you do all day, MrPikeBishop, that you have time to spend your life on this site? I suppose the answer may be that you are a paraplegic typing with one toe and then I shall feel guilty at picking you out as one particular persecutor.

What do you expect when you respond to ad hominem attacks with patronising ad hominem attacks? Do you really see this as a solution? Are you treating your audience with the kind of respect that you for some reason think you deserve by default?

Ms Toynbee professes to answer her many e-mails, but I do get the sense that the Guardian’s columnists are simply not used to this kind of medium, they are not used to getting feedback in public where they can’t just hit ‘delete’ to get rid of a pesky critic.

Suw – who I should inform Ms Bennett is female and blogs, thank you very much – likened such old school thinking to this:

It’s like them walking into a pub, making their pronouncements and then walking out. Later, they are shocked to find out that everyone is calling them a wanker.

An interesting comment on CiF from altrui May 18, 2006 12:04 (I can’t link directly to the comment):

One observation – those who respond to commenters tend not to be abused so much. There is a certain accountability required among political commentators, just as there is for politicians. Until now, opinion formers have never really had to justify themselves. I can think of many of the commentariat who write provocative and incendiary pieces which cause no end of trouble, yet they carry on stoking up argument and division, without censure or even a requirement to explain themselves.

Two issues here: Columnists are not used to engaging in conversation with their readers; and the readers have had years to build up contempt of specific writers and are now being given the opportunity to revile them in public. A lethal combination of arrogance and pent-up frustration – no wonder CiF has soured. Question is, can the Guardian columnists learn from their mistakes and pull it back from the brink?

A few suggestions. Don’t treat your audience as the enemy. If you’re going to talk down to your audience, they are going to shout back. And quite honestly, I would say to any media organisation that your best columnists and commentators don’t necessarily make the best bloggers. Most media organisations thinkg blogging is simply snarky columns. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

It’s a distributed conversation. Ms Ashley says: “As with child bullies, I wonder if these anonymous commenters and correspondents would really be quite so “brave” if they were having a face to face conversation.” You’re right, and I am in no way defending some of the toxic comments that you’re receiving. But step back. Read your column as if it were one side of a conversation and think how you would respond.

Many columnists seem to use the British public school debating trick that really is a form of elitist trash-talking. Belittle your opponents as much as possible. Most will lose their heads, and therefore the argument. But, again, step back. Would you ever address someone face-to-face in the patronising manner of your columns and honestly expect anything approaching a civil response? It seems that your debating strategy has worked all too well, and your audience is so angry that they are responding merely with profanity and vitriol.

Again, having said all of that, I’m glad that the Guardian aren’t letting growing pains stop them. They are choosing one of their best CiF commenters to become a CiF blogger. Bravo.

28 thoughts on “Comment is F**ked

  1. Suw,

    When you mention:

    “Many columnists seem to use the British public school debating trick that really is a form of elitist trash-talking.”

    I think your understanding one of the major problems that the old media has. Most still refuse to acknowledge the viability of the blogosphere and as a result continuously talk down to writers and assume superiority.

    The overall general public doesn’t buy it, and good bloggers don’t pay attention.

  2. I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, yes, the columnists’ failure to engage with commenters has been really striking and really lamentable, and has certainly contributed to the atmosphere getting as bad as it is now. But I can share Polly’s dismay: I’ve been posting comments online for a decade now (most of that on Usenet), and I’ve never used a pseudonym or a fake email address except for occasional game-playing purposes – and I’ve always distrusted those posters who did. Anonymity is great for people misusing their employers’ Net connection, but it’s also ideal for trollers, flamers and flamebaiters. Allowing anonymity on a high-profile site like CiF was simply inviting the latter group in – and inviting that kind of behaviour from commenters in general. The result was that the site turned into a Harry’s Place-type political scratching-post rather than an arena for debate among commenters.

    Supply-side solutions won’t address the suppressed demand for a chance to snipe at Polly Toynbee – which is large – but more could certainly have been done to make the atmosphere more civilised. If Ben & co were concerned about trolling – and if they really wanted to set up CiF as a blog among blogs – a very simple partial solution would have been to require a Typepad or Blogger ID.

  3. Phil,

    I think the issue of anonymity versus accountability (if only it were that simple) is only one of the things at work here. Dan Gillmor did a lot of good thinking about whether or not to require full registration with Bayosphere. There are some interesting elements to explore in another post.

    However, I’m not sure that is the only thing at work here. There are lots of efforts and experiments by large media organisations to create community around their content. I often quote Dan Gillmor in what many saw as his post-mortem on Bayosphere that he didn’t fully realise at the time of the launch how important community building skills would be. Online community never has been a Field of Dreams proposition. For those of you not intimately familiar with Kevin Costner’s filmography, it’s famous for the line: Build it, and they will come.

    Online community takes time and a lot of social engineering as Ben Hammersley called it. After this initial phase, it becomes self-regulating to a point. People feel a sense of involvement and ownership and will police the community. A sort of online neighbourhood watch if you will. They will work to marginalise trolls.

    There are also some issues of whether communities scale. As with blogging now or Usenet before, it began with a self-selecting group of people who agreed to certain norms of behaviour. When we in large media organisations use these tools and expose them to a mass audience, our large audiences may not understand/agree/buy into this social contract. Community ties become looser, and the sense of civility breaks down. Just some thoughts. Thanks for the comment.


  4. Thanks for the name check Kevin.

    I’ve never quite seen the point of anonymity online. Partly because it seems pretty easy to find out who people are, and partly because you have more credibility if you are honest about who you are.

  5. Kevin – strong agreement. One point I was mulling over but eventually didn’t put down is that CiF isn’t really a blog. At least, it was launched as a blog (or group of blogs), but it immediately got far more traffic than most blogs ever do. The problem this causes is that blog-style informal comment moderation (classically summed up by Tom Coates: “Please stay on-topic, informative and polite. I reserve the right to remove comments for whatever vague capricious reasons seem reasonable at the time.”) doesn’t scale very well: beyond a certain point the group needs to police itself. And yes, Usenet shows that this is possible – all the newsgroups I used to frequent had regular posters who could be relied on to tell newcomers that That’s Not How We Do Things Around Here, without anyone disputing their right to speak for the group. But to do this requires a community, which needs to be built – or at least to have time to grow. Which, in the blog context, means a lot more effort being put into building the conversation – which brings us back to your original point.

    Nick – the problem I see is that positively encouraging anonymity (as CiF effectively does) keeps anonymity from having any reputational effect. My ‘handle’ on CiF is PhilEdwards – I’m awkward like that – but the great majority of commenters are effectively anonymous, with no way for anyone to tell who they are IRL, where else they post online or even whether they’re sockpuppets. I hate that.

  6. I’m with Polly Toynbee when she asks bloggers to come out from behind their pseudonyms. You can make the greatest most erudite opinion-forming post ever but if you sign off with ‘KIKI-CHICK69’ you deserve to be ignored…

    ….Let’s start a campaign for real names in the blogosphere (credit card-verified like they do on amazon).

  7. Paul,

    Good to see you on Strange Attractor. Do you mean bloggers or commenters on CiF? Blogging has a couple of ways to comment. Both in the comments, and then also in posts on one’s own blog linking back to the original post.

    I think everyone should be more transparent. Bloggers, commenters and journalists. We live in an age of rude technology. We’re still coming up with social norms.

    Thanks for the comment Paul.


  8. The CiF site seems to have considered none of the points posed by its readers or your excellent article Mr Anderson. It’s now posted a patronising screed announcing that posters may only comment once every half hour. That’s once on the whole site, not just per thread.

    Naturally the impossible has happened and posters of left and right have rushed to unite in condemning this arrogant, high handed piece of censorship and the numbers of comments on all other threads has of course plummeted.

    Either the site dies or this absurd rule will be revoked, but it just shows that the Guardian, for all its online efforts, is clueless about how the web works. Rather typically for a left wing organisation it’s very good at lecturing the proles about what they should want and even better at opening the gulag gates if the ungrateful great unwashed raise the merest hint of rebellion.

  9. Maybe if news outlet staffers actively participated in a comment section while not treating the participants as enemies or fueling fires like Ms. Toynbee did, then commenters would actually act in a civil fashion. For instance, as an American if I knew that I was exchanging ideas with the actual Tom Brokaw or Maureen Dowd, I would try my best to present my arguments in a way that would impress them. Instead of attacking them or ‘KIKI-CHICK69,’ I would attack what they argue. In fact, I may try to support them.

    Currently, the subset of people who not only read user generated content on-line and actively produce it is very small. It makes sense to me that many of this particular subset are ones who not only actively follow the news but also admire or keep close tabs on the journalists they listen to, watch, or read. While they may not like a certain journalist, I’m sure that many would not want to make themselves look bad in front of them.

  10. It is me again. I was browsing the through the responses to Mary Riddell’s piece “I, too, am horrified by the awful scenes in Lebanon. But wait…” from Sunday, July 30 on Comment is Free, and I noticed an interesting — yet, unsurprising — trend.

    While some of the posters may not act the most civilly, they seem very passionate about participating in the analysis of the situation that the article addresses. Also, it seems that there is a small subset of contributors in the discussion. For instance, take a look at how many times davidto has already chimed in. Also, look at the length of his/her posts as well.

    I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and in the afterward of the edition I read he commented on how there is a phone number on packages of Ivory soap to call with comments and questions. Who in the heck would actually call or have anything substantive to say about Ivory soap? Soap mavens. Gladwell’s point is that businesses need to take care of the mavens or fanatics of their products because they will spread good news to their non-maven family members, friends, and associates. This creates a situation ripe for a good word of mouth campaign.

    Those, like davidto are news mavens, and news outlets can use features like Comment is Free or The Washington Post’s Post Global section to manifest their thirst for and knowledge of the news. If the Guardian and The Washington Post play their cards right with these collaborative features, they will appease these news mavens who will in turn provide these organizations with valuable word of mouth mojo that will help them weather the changing paradigm of where many people get their news and interact with it.

  11. Nick Reynolds – “I’ve never quite seen the point of anonymity online. Partly because it seems pretty easy to find out who people are, and partly because you have more credibility if you are honest about who you are.”

    Paul Coletti – “…Let’s start a campaign for real names in the blogosphere”

    You elitists are so naive. So protected. So clueless.

    And yes I would say that to your face.

    You elite protected people have no idea what real life is about. You have never been attacked.

    Out here in the real world? When you have a verbal disagreement with someone, they attack. They try to put a virus on your computer. They find out who you are and start calling your house 10 times a day. They hound you across the internet, no matter where you go, or how many years have gone by.

    If you want to see what happens in real life, go here to see what people did to this person.

    A group of people became involved in a disagreement with this one person. The administrator of the forums was one of the group of people. The administrator banned the man in that link, then he and his group proceeded to trash and publicly investigate the man. The man could not respond because he was banned.

    That thread has been on that website for 1 1/2 years now. That thread is used constantly by that same gang of people who have been following that person around the internet for 1 1/2 years causing him grief. No matter where he goes, that group of people shows up and links to that thread for purposes of turning the new group of people against the person.

    So. If you people out there in blogland want to be a victim like this guy was, go ahead and use your real name.

    You have been warned.

  12. Re:

    While I do believe that people are attacked and harmed by people they have gotten into fights with online, the example you linked to does not support your claims. (at least, the specific page you linked to – the thread seems to be longer)

    The page does not contain any reports of Real Life attacks, and the only “publicly investigate[ion]” was a whois lookup, which is public information. Further, the person in question *used* a alias; the problem was they didn’t do it well enough.

    I wonder what kind of “protection” you consider that the posters on corante have; bodyguards, large legal departments, black helicopters, what?

    As for the person who was banned being unable to respond – the page pointed to numerous places where the person not only could respond, but apparently was publishing things at the very same time. If the people he was arguing with had gotten him kicked off of his ISP, that might count as preventing him from responding. (although, in most areas, libraries offer free Internet access; the gentleman could post a rebuttal through that channel.)

    As I said, I believe that some people do atttempt to send viruses to the computers of people they object to, and even attempt to hassle them by phone – but the link you gave didn’t show any of that.

  13. It just shows how far we have come when the contributors to Cif get as prissy as the columnists.

    We truly do live in a world of citizen journalists. It’s just a shame the CJ’s are picking up the worst habits of the columinati.

  14. Freedom to comment should always be apart of our new media if people would just take out the links from the comment field and allow no HTML in comments spam would never be a fear.

  15. I am also for freedom of expressing your thoughts, and sharing them with the world… Comments should always exist

  16. With out freedom of commenting or expression we would live in a censorship ruled world where the word of our readers would never be heard. Surely, that outweighs any downside that may result from SPAM or inappropriate comments. I mean thats what software like Askimet or Captcha is for.


  17. “First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free.”

    I disagree. It came late in the game – well after dozens of other media based group blogging sites, and most of the articles are incredibly pedantic in tone. Were it structured to augment the Guardian by allowing for additional information by readers, people disussing points, and publishing errata, it would make seem to have more to it than a yahoo group, but it doesn’t.
    One finds BBC correspondents transcribing their television and radio reports, as well as other grand and brave acts of recycling by them and other bloggers, but does very little to add to the print edition.

  18. We all have a right to our opinions and also a right to our privacy. As a single mother, I don’t want every yahoo knowing exatctly who I am and how to find me so what is the argument all about in the first place. I have a right to protect my privacy, don’t I? That’s what allows me to comment freely in my blog and not worry that someone will know exactly who I am and possibly suffer reprocutions from such comments. An I right to see it that way or wrong? Guess that’s a matter of opinion

  19. In reading the comments to your much controversial issue of the ability to do anything online while being completely anonymous these days. I have to agree whole hearted with comment numbered 6, that I have pasted below written by Paul Coletti§

    “….Let’s start a campaign for real names in the blogosphere (credit card-verified like they do on amazon).”

    Where do I sign Paul?
    Shiny Up,
    Poet Horton

  20. One issue I have with requiring real names linked to “real world” identities to comment on a blog is that once you do that, it’s out there forever. Once your name (and whatever you used to verify that the name is your own) has been used and posted, it is available to each and every one of the 6 billion people on this planet, and each use of that identity is searchable in a way that no other form of communication or self expression is. When you are talking with your buddies at the bar, your boss can’t hear them while eating breakfast the next morning. Everything you do under a unified ID, especially one that is linked to your real identity (even if you use multiple aliases linked to your real ID) is searchable and can be compiled and datamined very quickly. If you’re in doubt, I invite you to read the following NYT article:

    In the end, it doesn’t truly matter what name someone chooses to go by. What matters is their contribution to the community over a period of time. Individuals can come to be regarded as pillars of the online community whether they are known as “Mr.Sillypants” or “John H. Smith” based on their actions and contributions.

    Additionally, in the very short term, after one vitriolic comment, knowing my real name isn’t going to do you a whole lot of good. However, requiring a credit card, or a driver’s license, or a passport, etc, simply raises barriers to entry. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that the barriers to entry are dropping every second, and people can communicate relatively free of the initial stigmas and biases that persistently arise in meatspace based on things like clothes, age, sex, class, orientation, race and citizenship.

  21. Let’s acknowledge that when you are attacked it’s human nature to want to attack back. And sometimes it’s hard to resist the temptation.

    I think

    **** the future of comments lies in filtering ****

    – what’s the point of making a comment, if readers are so fed up by the tripe before yours that they never see it?

    Make the filters voluntary, and those who want (and want to be) the Wild West can have it, while those that want civil informed commentary can have that.

    For example: skimming through the 20+ comments before mine it would have been great to see each one’s main point highlighted in bold (or color, or whatever).
    (alas, corante doesn’t allow this…)

  22. Anna,

    I’ll agree that when one is attacked, it’s natural to respond in kind. However, my point was and still is that if you start the conversation in full battle mode with a senselessly provocative piece, in an age of interaction, it is hardly surprising that the conversation ends where it began: Full of vitriol and name-calling. As I often say, if one wants lots of comments, it’s a pretty straight-forward process of picking a hot button issue and pressing those buttons as hard as possible, which seems to be the interactive ‘strategy’ of too many news sites. Technology will only go so far in addressing community issues. One has to have an effective content strategy to maintain civility and intelligence, if that is, in fact, one’s goal.

    There are some systems as you describe, in terms that people can vote up or down comments. The Bakersfield has developed and sells one. One can choose to see comments that have only reached a level of approval. However, I’m not aware of a commenting system that allows the type of filtering that you’re describing. Please point me in the direction of one if you know of it.

    You should be able to use basic HTML and highlight what you wish using the Movable Type system that we use here.

    Being a niche site, we don’t usually get this many comments. This post has been one of those in the long tail, slowly accruing comments over the two years since I wrote it. But as I said, technology is only part of the solution. Thanks for the comment.

  23. Miscommunication, sorry –
    When I’d said above “alas, corante doesn’t allow this” I meant bolding of part of one’s comment – the “preview” had stripped it out.
    Trying bolding again: .test test

  24. (and where did that preview button go, anyway? am I awake?)

  25. Anna, the preview button vanished when we moved over from MT to WordPress, which happened yesterday afternoon! You are awake, it’s the blog that changed. 😉

  26. Without the freedom to comment, how the heck would we know what everyone else was thinking. That would not be a very fun world to live in, thats for sure.

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