Keeping comments under control

Ideas of Civilisation has written a really interesting post about the state of the Scottish blogosphere compared with the dodgy comments that get posted on The Herald‘s website, Scotsman.com and the like.

The Scottish blogosphere is indeed, by and large, a pretty good place for a debate. Nowadays it is probably dominated a bit too much by SNP supporters, but I think the debate is usually pretty respectful. IoC asks, why does this respectful atmosphere not cross over into the mainstream media comment sites?

The answer is that they are mainstream media comment sites. As I have pointed out before, trolls, flamers and knuckle-draggers are attracted to MSM comment sites like flies on a shit. The blog spEak You’re bRanes, a blog I mention many times, does a good job of compiling the most ridiculous comments posted to MSM outlets.

The thing is that IoC is right when he says that the debate in the Scottish blogosphere is good. But this isn’t peculiar to Scotland. The debate in the blogosphere world-wide is also good. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of extreme comments in MSM websites does not just exist on Scottish websites (although Scotland does have a distinct phenomenon with its ‘cybernats’). It is known to media outlets the world over, and even some big websites such as Digg and YouTube.

So why is there such a difference? After all, the point of blogging is meant to be that it’s really easy to get involved in. So why don’t people with poisonous views pollute the blogosphere so easily?

The answer is that it’s so simple to avoid poisonous people in the blogosphere. Does someone have a terrible blog? That’s okay, because no-one will read it. Knuckle-dragging extremists find that they will reach a far wider audience if they post on a website like Scotsman.com or the BBC.

There is another answer. Even though in theory it is easy to set up a blog, the reality is slightly different. You still have to put in quite a lot of effort. It can be time-consuming and you have to come up with the goods to make sure people read it. If you are not interested in having a genuine discussion, you will soon find that blogging is quite costly. But for those who are willing to put the effort in for there to be a good debate, the pay-off can be good. For this reason, bloggers tend to be more articulate, reasoned and intelligent than your average Have Your Sayer.

Does this mean that we should give up on the idea of having comments on the BBC’s blogs or The Herald‘s political stories? Far from it. All you have to do to improve the nature of the debate is create the right mechanism to ensure that the cream will rise up.

Websites such as Digg and YouTube have implemented a voting mechanism in an attempt to get rid of trolls. You can choose to give a comment a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’. The BBC’s Have Your Say has a similar voting mechanism. However, this doesn’t work in my view. In fact, if anything, it exacerbates the problem. It just makes the comments section even more of a hotbed of demagoguery — the loudest attention seekers, not the most reasoned and articulate, will grab the most votes.

Some websites are just lucky enough to have a good audience that respects debate. The Economist‘s website is said to be relatively free of HYS-style trolls. That is probably due to the target audience of the publication. I suspect many HYSers aren’t even aware of the existence of The Economist and if they are, they aren’t interested in posting there because it’s not a publication for them.

However, for the more mass-market audiences of the likes of the BBC, The Herald and The Scotsman, it’s too late to do anything about this. They made a decision long ago to appeal to the masses, so its audience will have that demagogic element that will be reflected in the comments.

Another alternative might be to force users to post under their real names. It is generally believed that once people’s cloak of anonymity has been removed, their online debating style becomes more respectful and considered.

On the other hand, many bloggers and commenters have genuine reason to wish to remain anonymous. And, barring the universal adoption of an OpenID-style system, it would be nigh on impossible to police. A decent ‘middle ground’ option might be to place OpenID comments at the top of the thread and hide the anonymous comments towards the bottom of the page.

Another possible solution is simply to make it costly for the ill-informed jokers to take part. For some, it may be an anathema to make people pay to post comments — almost against the culture of the web. But it needn’t be.

There is one big website that is known for having decent comments sections that avoid the numbskullery of sites such as YouTube — MetaFilter. There it costs $5 to post comments. That is a one-time life-long fee. Pay $5 and you can post to your heart’s content. There is also a one-week time lag between signing up and being able to post.

This ensures that only the people who are interested in contributing properly get involved. $5 is quite a small fee for those who really value MetaFilter, but it is enough to deter time-wasting trolls. A one-week time lag also prevents people from just posting a crazy extreme rant in the heat of the moment. Just like blogging, MetaFilter is costly for the time-wasters, but beneficial for those who want to make a genuine contribution.

The solution for the MSM websites if they want to clean out their comment sections is therefore to somehow create a mechanism that makes it costly for extremist ranters to post, but makes it beneficial for those who want to take part in a reasoned debate.

Perhaps a MeFi-style one-off fee or a time lag might do the trick. If you had to pay, say, £5 to open a lifetime account on Scotsman.com to allow you to post, you might just go for it if that £5 was enough to deter the ranting trolls. It could also be a handy (though potentially small) additional source of income for the media outlets.

IoC’s issue isn’t just with the media websites though. It’s also with the Scottish Government’s website. If a government website becomes an outlet for extreme views, that is undoubtedly a problem. The Scottish Government’s “National Conversation” has been accused of being “a chatroom for cybernats“. That was probably always inevitable. After all, a “conversation” about independence initiated by the SNP is bound not to last long or be very meaningful.

Nonetheless, I have to applaud the Scottish Government for going ahead with the project. To have user-generated content on a government website is pretty big stuff if you ask me and it’s probably the right thing to do — engaging the citizens in the policy-making process and all that.

But the contributions have to be meaningful. I’ve not been following the National Conversation very closely. Skimming through it just now, it doesn’t look too bad, but obviously it’s caused concern among some.

Perhaps for user-generated content on government websites there should be an expectation that you do not contribute anonymously. I think that is probably a reasonable expectation for someone who wants to take part in civic society. People who write a letter to their MP or MSP or another figure in public office can’t expect a reply without supplying a name and address. The Government’s e-petition website also requires you to enter a name and address. The authenticity of some of these names is questionable though.

Perhaps future projects like the National Conversation might require people to supply real names and addresses (not publicly viewable of course) in order to participate. This would remove the cloak of anonymity and improve the likelihood of there being a sensible debate. Looking at the National Conversation website, it looks like most (but not all) participants are contributing under their real names anyway. Still, it’s a thought.

3 comments

  1. doctorvee sux LOL!!!111

    But I jest. On F1 Fanatic we inevitably get some debates that are more heated than others: the three most commented stories are all about Lewis Hamilton.

    Apart from the usual restrictions on racism, sexism etc… I perhaps go a step further than some by banning swearing and insults. I think it stops things getting out of hand and I think it encourages a better quality of discussion.

    Of course the vast majority of commentators wouldn’t swear or insult each other even if the restriction wasn’t there, but I suspect some would be put off from commenting in the first place if the saw flame wars going on, so I think the approach works to the site’s benefit.

    As for not commenting anonymously, I’m all for it. I think anonymous commenting usually just encourages people to express their opinions more vehemently than they ordinarily would.

  2. Good stuff Doctor Vee – some interesting ideas about why there is such a split between blogs and comment pages.

    I really feel I should now find out a bit more about F1 so I can have a reciprocal post about something from your blog!