March 17, 2008

Welcome to the InterWebs

This article made me smile. It's hilarious because it's just so completely years behind the times.

As traditional news outfits migrate online to become dot-coms, one of their biggest headaches is how to adapt to the sprawling new frontier of public comment.

The sprawling NEW frontier of public comment? Sure, if by new you mean more than a decade in the making.

In the pre-Internet world of TV and newspapers, public comment wasn't a problem.

Sooooo, public comment is a problem?

Broadcast news didn't have any -- aside from the weekly guest spot, usually some hapless civic association president reading from a prompter and staring terrified into the camera. Papers had their letters pages, but allowed only enough space for a few dozen a week, and they were generally written with care and were easy to prune for taste and diction.

Only enough space for the chosen. Those with the proper taste and diction. Gah, he makes it sound like it should be a poetry reading. I'll grant the Web is chock full of bad grammar and spelling, but you can ignore it if you're so inclined. It's not that hard.

Things were nicely under control.

Free speech! Under control!

But on the Internet, public comment isn't kitchen table talk, it's saloon brawl. Postings are sharp and rough-and-tumble. Harsh and derisive exchanges are common. So are personal attacks. Chat rooms and message boards routinely allow people to post comments anonymously. Only when postings are so egregious, so outrageous, racist or vile that other participants cough up hairballs do managers strike the comments and banish the authors.

Where has this guy been living for the past five+ years? Jeez, that paragraph pretty much sums up what my ThunderJournal comment box was like back in 2003. And I was just fine with it. Made for some pretty entertaining coversations, back in the day.

That's the cyber pond that traditional news organizations are diving into. They understand that their own futures hinge on re-establishing online the central role in civic life that they've played offline. So they are eager to host forums where people in the communities they serve go first to offer comment.

The role in civic life they've played offline? Seriously? Just how much of a self-important opinion does this guy have of himself and his profession?

What about taste, civility?

What about it? Taste and civility are almost entirely irrelevant online. I think there's a general understanding, with a few exceptions, people don't act like they do online. I, for one, don't tend to devolve into unchecked profanity when someone says something I disagree with at the local convenience store. Instead, I make a mental note that that particular person is a dumbass and procced onward with my day.

So they embrace the rambunctious discourse of the Internet with the zeal of the convert -- and the sweaty fervor of the desperate: Got something to say? Tell us!

Sounds about right. So, what's the problem?

Editors who would never dream of running an unsigned letter-to-the-editor now argue for promiscuous anonymity.

It's the Internet! Who cares?

And taste and civility, respectfulness? Old-line values of a discredited media elite.

And don't let the door hit you on your way out, you old bunch of pretentious cock gobblers.

I exaggerate, but not that much. The new guiding principle is hands-off. At an American Society of Newspaper Editors workshop I attended recently in California, some very good and high-powered online journalists -- not the consensus, admittedly -- suggested that even screening postings would drive commentators to other websites, where they could speak their minds without restraint. And that would be ruinous to newspapers' online strategies.

And they would, too. Not all, but many.

The Organization of News Ombudsmen, a group I admire and to which I belong, has an e-mail thread right now soliciting input on how news organizations should handle public comment: Is it to OK to block anti-immigrant rants, to weed out defamation, to protect privacy and attempt to enforce some standards of reasonable expression? What about unsigned comment?

An e-mail thread? Dude, get an online forum.

Some organizations argue that they are providing a public space, which they don't have the right, let alone the duty, to regulate. It will look after itself.

That's my policy on my ThunderJourrnal. Okay, I don't have a policy. Let's just say I'm too lazy to regulate. Granted, I try to whack down spam comments when they appear, and I tend to close comment threads that get too spammy, but that's the extent of my regulation. I regularly visit some blogs that feature commenters that sorely need to be banned just because they quite obviously suffer from Internet Commenting Disorder, but other than that, I say let 'em all comment and let stupidity sort 'em out.

But is the marketplace of ideas self-regulating?


Is defamation canceled out by testimonials, falsehoods by truth?

Is he talking about newspapers, or Web discussions? Because there's plenty of defamation, testimonials, falsehoods and truth printed DAILY by established media outlets.

Or does Internet talk promise another sad case of what the late ecologist Garrett Hardin called the ''tragedy of the commons'': Each individual herdsman benefits from putting one more head of cattle onto public pasture, and suffers little from cumulative overgrazing. In time, though, community disaster ensues.

Good God, man, could you be more melodramatic? Community disaster won't ensue because of a lack of civility in online discourse. If you've been paying attention to sites like, say, over the past several years, the community tends to thrive (and a huge chunk of those Farkers pay $5 a month to dabble in unfettered, uncivil, online discouse) and some of the most original, hilarious and downright ingenious contributions emerge there as a result.

In this case, the extreme license given individuals to vent, dissemble, excoriate and indulge their hates verbally, winds up destroying the expressive freedom that other people, less bold and less opinionated, need.

Look, if you're afraid to mix it up in online discussion boards and comment threads--where the most that usually happens is someone insults you *gasp*--then you have a severe case of uncurable wussy-itis.

Venturing an opinion, even a sound one, just isn't worth the risk. The overall result is a less expansive, less robust sphere of expression -- and sound, worthwhile thoughts aren't shared.

Honest to God, is this guy for real? Is he even remotely familiar with the storied history of online discussion of the last decade? The online sphere of expression is more robust and inclusive than anything dead tree newspapers ever came close to achieving in their golden age.

Public conversation -- exchanging ideas about what a community is and ought to be -- is something that has to be learned.

What a bunch of flaccid twaddle.

Unfortunately, mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire, Bill O'Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about.

Yeah, welcome to human civilization. It's been around now for about 10,000 years or so. Thought you'd met. Burr and Hamilton duel it out with pistols a couple hundred years ago, and this guy has the vapors because an anonymous commenter can call another commenter a "douchenozzle." Jesus wept.

What's going on, what matters

It isn't. With the move online, journalism has the opportunity to morph into a practice based not just on information gathering and narrative skill, but of stewardship, of presiding over a community-wide conversation about what's going on and what matters.

Gah. What a self-important toad-screwer. He doesn't get it. The days of a newspaper "presiding" over a conversation are gone. They've been gone for years. They don't get to "preside" any more, they just get to participate. As soon as a newspaper decides it wants a presiding role online is the same moment their audience, or at least a huge chunk of it, goes elsewhere, to the seemingly infinite number of forums, blogs and other venues that encourage unfettered discourse.

Those message boards and chat rooms aren't just market extension opportunities for media owners. They're warm and busy spaces where a new world of expression and communication is incubating.

Okay, so, we agree. Great. Awesome.

To say there should be rules, that communicants should be admonished to strive for honesty and civility and respect, is not to justify elitism. It's not even to prescribe the rules. But it's to acknowledge that rules are needed, and to kick off the process of writing them.

Uhhh, it's not about prescibing rules. . . it's about writing them? How's that different?

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

Knight professor! Neat-o!

Posted by Ryan at March 17, 2008 11:16 PM | TrackBack

it's been my experience that anyone who is a professor of anything has so got their head up their academic ass they don't really understand how the rest of the real world works. it's all theory to them, and they barely look outside their own spheres of knowledge.

i think there are definitely ways of encouraging better discourse in comments on news sites. the SF Chron recently started allowing users to rank comments, so that the best ones get moved to the top and the troll ones are way down at the bottom and no on reads that far. they also started publishing a selection of the comments in the print paper a day or two later so that everyone would read them. i think it's definitely helped keep the tone down, or at the very least, the ranking has made the comment threads readable.

Posted by: amy.leblanc at March 18, 2008 07:36 PM
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