Victoria Times Colonist to Remove Online Commenting

This week, our local news­pa­per announced it was remov­ing the com­ment sec­tion in future posts. This comes in the wake of a fair­ly well-estab­lished trend of promi­nent media out­lets, includ­ing Pop­u­lar Sci­ence, decid­ing to do the same in order to bring the empha­sis back to the con­tent, and curb wide­spread abuse of writ­ers and their audi­ences by unpleas­ant dri­ve-by commenters.

And tru­ly, noth­ing of val­ue was lost.

First, what many major out­lets have real­ized by now, many of them through rather hard lessons, is that jour­nal­ism isn’t just a busi­ness, it’s a del­i­cate bal­ance, a deep search for the truth. By its very nature, this demands well-devel­oped com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills and keen social com­pe­tence on the part of its researchers and pre­sen­ters, and a care­ful­ly craft­ed envi­ron­ment in which to con­vey the infor­ma­tion to the audience.

The focus must remain on get­ting the over­all mes­sage across as it was intend­ed, and to this end, the audi­ence is in their best shape to be recep­tive to that infor­ma­tion when it’s in a place where they can absorb it at their own time, con­sid­er the facts and nar­ra­tives, and not have the mes­sage dam­aged by snide remarks, con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, thin­ly-dis­guised shock site links, and oth­er types of trolling.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, most news media com­ment sec­tions and mes­sage boards end up abused, and abused most brutally.

Why is this prob­lem so widespread?

From what I’ve noticed, the dynam­ic usu­al­ly goes south because the premise on which pub­lic com­ment forums are cre­at­ed is entire­ly wrong to begin with. News out­lets encour­ag­ing com­men­tary are, by their actions, attempt­ing to bring togeth­er an extreme­ly het­ero­ge­neous audi­ence under unnat­ur­al con­di­tions in which there exists no uni­fy­ing sense of iden­ti­ty, lit­tle to pull users close and be inter­est­ed in each oth­er, few mech­a­nisms to dri­ve focus, poor col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, and rarely any feel­ing of long-term consequences.

Togeth­er, these fac­tors result in a lack of impe­tus for the group to draw togeth­er as a self-con­scious, pro­duc­tive, self-polic­ing community.

Any novice Web design­er can believe they’ll get more hits from adding a forum for users to inter­act; it takes true experts and cau­tious engi­neer­ing, how­ev­er, to actu­al­ly get some­thing good from the deal. This can be dif­fi­cult even in places where one has a group of like-mind­ed peo­ple to start with who wish to learn from each oth­er. Man­ag­ing a group is a com­pli­cat­ed task that’s equal parts art and sci­ence, and it fre­quent­ly requires years of care­ful plan­ning in order to lay the ground­work prop­er­ly to cre­ate qual­i­ty con­nec­tions and a suf­fi­cient­ly large readership.

Turn-key com­ment forums, from the way they’re imple­ment­ed on most news sites, have been han­dled in a way that cre­ates a cheap, ephemer­al sense of being. They’re overused in places they should not even exist. There’s too lit­tle thought put into engi­neer­ing for pos­i­tive inter­ac­tion. Most alarm­ing­ly, their ubiq­ui­ty has led to the wide­spread pub­lic per­cep­tion that the medi­um itself is dis­pos­able. Con­se­quent­ly, most com­men­tary takes on the char­ac­ter of the venue itself — dri­ve-by, for­get­table, out-of-place, melodramatic.

It’s an echo cham­ber full of sound and fury, sig­ni­fy­ing nothing.

Even before the rise of com­ment apps and social media, I always felt that the over­whelm­ing bulk of the empha­sis must remain on the con­tent. There’s a good rea­son for that: if a per­son pub­lish­es an arti­cle, the main sell­ing fea­ture of that arti­cle’s pre­sen­ta­tion for­mat should not be the abil­i­ty to sign up to a ser­vice that allows read­ers to fling their poo at one another.

If poo-fling­ing ends up being the con­se­quence, it’s because some­one added an oppor­tu­ni­ty at some point to change the emphasis.

This goes dou­ble for any­one pub­lish­ing con­tent that isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly intel­lec­tu­al in nature, con­tent that does­n’t log­i­cal­ly call for fol­lowup, or con­tent that basi­cal­ly amounts to a pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment — there’s no good rea­son to make these into debates in most cas­es. If a read­er does need to con­tact the author or edi­tor, for exam­ple in the case of a cor­rec­tion to an arti­cle, the com­pa­ny’s tele­phone line or news­room e‑mail will be more than suf­fi­cient to get the job done.

We’re best served leav­ing the com­men­tary on the spe­cial­ized sys­tems and tools we’ve adopt­ed that have already proven wild­ly suc­cess­ful at engag­ing us — tools like Twit­ter, Face­book, and per­son­al web­sites are much bet­ter geared to these kinds of dis­cus­sions, and far bet­ter attuned to each of our unique inter­ests and social cir­cles. These sys­tems car­ry com­men­tary in a more mean­ing­ful way since they’re bet­ter orga­nized and con­nect­ed. Best of all, by hav­ing com­menters sur­round­ed by the peo­ple they care about in a famil­iar set­ting, it great­ly reduces any temp­ta­tion to fling poo.

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