Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

This is Not a Comment

Ceci n'est pas un commentaire

(With apologies to René Magritte.)

One of my favorite radio shows is On The Media. I’ve been listening to it for years. Their critiques of traditional media are astute and often funny. But when they talk about the internet, they reveal themselves to be the old codgers they are.

This week, host Bob Garfield did a piece ostensibly about the problems newspaper sites have with website comments. Unfortunately it just came out sounding like another old journalist kvetching about how everyone on the net is an idiot. You can listen to the story here.

The story has many problems, not the least of which is the total absence of any actual commenters. But the main one is that Garfield lumps all commenters, and commenting systems, together. On the web, not all comments are created equal.

Yes, if you open your site to comments from people who do not have to register or create an account, you’ll get a lot of unfiltered craziness. That’s because you’re not doing your job as a host. Imagine a newspaper of infinite pages with no editors where anyone with a keyboard could contribute. Sounds fun to me, but not a recipe for consistent thoughtfulness.

That’s why online comment systems have evolved. Take Slashdot’s karma (which has been around for almost 10 years, so there’s no excuse for you to not know about it), which allows readers to rate and filter each other’s comments. Or Amazon’s product reviews (again, around for over 10 years), which are filtered by human editors and then rated by other shoppers. Or wiki systems (again, over a decade) like Wikipedia that allow many people to collaborate on one document.

The story completely missed moderation queues, reputation management systems, or any of the hundreds of comment systems built over the last decade to address this very problem. Garfield seems to base the entire story on some bad comments on the OTM site, a site that provides a completely open, no signup required, comment system. But instead of asking “Is there a better way to do this?” he goes for the much easier story: “Gosh internet commenters sure are dumb!”

This refusal to distinguish between different comment systems is exactly the kind of sloppy journalism that they regularly criticize on the show. I was disappointed to hear it from a source I’d respected for so long. Thank goodness for Ira Glass, host of This American Life, who pushed back on Garfield, saying:

You’re old enough, and I’m old enough, that you were very comfortable with the one-way communication. And I hear you say this, and I feel like you are anti-democratic. You are a royalist. You are upset with democracy itself.

Thank you, Ira. But it’s not just that Garfield is being a snob. He’s also being blind to the real differences in online communities. Chastising all internet commenters for the actions of the loudest, craziest ones is no different that swearing off all newspapers because of Jason Blair.

Of course unmoderated anonymous comments on the internet can be incomprehensibly awful and frustratingly stupid. They can also be heartbreakingly sincere and shatteringly honest. That’s because they’re written by real people, and real people are complicated, messy, and weird.

Garfield and the crew at OTM should know that the process of making journalism is messy, too. They should see comments as part of that process. It’s not the product that matters, it’s the participation. Comments online are just like conversations in newsrooms – sloppy and stupid and often wrong. But they’re the raw stuff that great journalism starts from.

If On The Media really wanted to address this topic, they should explore why some sites have really positive, amazing conversations. What are they doing right that other newspaper sites could learn from? Why were the stories posted to Fray so emotional and honest? How is it that, with so many participants and so much press, Wikipedia is still so qualitatively great?

Oh yeah, and they should pick up a copy of Design for Community, my book from 2001, that’s about exactly this, and more relevant than ever.

I’m sure this story will inspire many comments on their site. There are only a few so far, and most are thoughtful and well-written. (The dumbest one is definitely my own, in which I suggest next time they interview someone under 30.) Let’s hope that, counter to the tone of the story, they’re actually listening.


UPDATE: 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.