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.

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