Saturday, November 1, 2008

If you can't say anything nice...

I have wrestled in the past with comments, and have expressed some of that struggle here (for example, a post from two weeks ago). I marvel at the crudity, the inappropriateness, the lack of relevance of many comments on blog posts, not just on this blog but on others as well. Truly, I do not understand why people would take the time to read a post and leave a comment, only to fill it with bile and invective that betrays not only a lack of class, but an inability to understand that persuasion doesn't come with profanity, comprehension doesn't result from incoherence.

I've enjoyed the work of Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn for years. He and I exchanged e-mails several years ago on a topic of mutual interest, and he was respectful and forthcoming despite our lack of agreement on that topic. And he was, I believe, the first Tribune blogger, and has maintained an amazing level of activity on the blog, reading and responding to comments (and, it seems, spending increasing amounts of time moderating them).

So it was sad to read that Eric is turning off the comments section of his blog, at least most of the time.
At times and on certain subjects it’s worked fabulously well. Smart, funny reasonable people have sparred with me, located common ground and opened my eyes to new points of view. Passionate advocates have forced me to explore and explain my opinions more fully, and I have done the same with them.

But most of the time, particularly lately, it’s been a frustrating, time-consuming exercise that seems to add more heat than light to my professional life. Finding and maintaining the useful online dialogues requires regular immersions in the cesspool of spam, vitriol, bigotry, misinformation and spite that is and, I‘ve regretfully concluded, probably always will be the world of anonymous online graffiti.
It is remarkably sad to see his hopes of the first paragraph dashed by the reality of the second. We can now add his name to the list of people who have found the Web 2.0 world to be something other than the nirvana of online communities, interacting to create new synergies and leading us to a perfect world of friendship and trans-border peace.

Unfortunately, put up a blank wall, and someone will want to write on it, and, in an express-yourself kind of culture, they'll do so. It's ironic that the Tribune itself has printed laudatory articles about "graffiti artists," whose "vision" apparently trumps property rights. And, while the issue is far from settled, it's certainly my feeling that I have a property interest in my blog that a reader just doesn't have.

Eric has been forced to call his interaction a "failure":
I'm not trying to shut anybody up. Those who want to post their views on my columns and discuss them with other readers may still do so on the newspaper’s Topix message boards, though I won’t participate. And those who want to take issue with me may still send me e-mail. I hope to use the most interesting and relevant e-mails as springboards for follow-up postings on the blog.

It was a worthwhile experiment, but it’s time to call it a failure, with deep thanks to all of you who did play along nicely and added a lot here, and move on.
I suspect that we will see more of this as time goes on, and much of the marvel that could come from the joining of minds to discuss important topics will be lost. I have had comments, regrettably few, that have expanded my view of the issue, and I value that. Eric has too, but now has had to make the decision to give that up in favor of tranquility. I find that sad.


Tim H. said...

Eric's blog isn't a failure. It is a great, multi-faceted forum that allows people to exchange ideas, beliefs, and opinions. There were many thought provoking posts on his blog. And IMHO, the smart and funny commenters outnumbered the crass, lowlife ones. I think that Mr. Zorn just spent a lot of time maintaining his wonderful blog, and it has caught up with him. It's too bad.

richgor said...

I tend to think the problem is not comments, per se, but the way the Tribune has implemented comments (using Topix's technology, which doesn't even require a persistent login name).

I also think it's well past time to think more creatively about the "comments box." Surely we can come up with better ways of enabling people to interact with us. I'm currently working with a class of master's students at the Medill School at Northwestern University that's experimenting with various more structured forms of user interaction around news.

More here:

... and at the class's Web site:

Androcass said...

Thanks for the comments.

Tim, I'd like to make clear that I'm not calling Eric's blog a failure at all; actually, I was picking up his own statement that the open-comment policy had proved to be a failure.

Your comment is right, but, by Eric's own admission, we were seeing a screened version of what he actually received, so one can't say the good comments outnumbered the bad. Apparently that wasn't true.

I love his blog, and my hope is that his decision will free him to do more posting, less moderation.

Rich, I will check out those links when I get the chance.

But I think the very existence of a project to create "more structured forms of user interaction" actually proves the point I was trying to make. The marvel of Web 2.0 was that it elevated the consumer into a producer, that we would all swim in a pool of unfiltered thoughts that would allow us to connect directly with one another without mediation.

Yet we've found that it is actually a cesspool, that people bring some of the most base aspects of their personalities to the online world, and we end up requiring moderation or some other form of structure. That this kind of toxicity so often prevails is profoundly sad, I think, and is not why most of us choose to put our thoughts into a public forum. To create a structure that will allow the good and exclude the bad, without compromising spontaneity will be difficult, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

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