Commenters: “Ungovernable as the tribal lands of Pakistan”

On Slugger, we’re currently in the process of packing down a tight set of rules which we hope to share with other political blogs who are keen on promoting civil engagement between their commenters. Top of the list of things we hope to capture is a clearer understanding of the difference between a breach of the rules of civility and and a set of politics you (ie, a complainant) simply don’t like, as Neil Swidey notes in a feature piece for the Boston Globe’s magazine, when he spoke to the head moderator at the paper’s website, Boston.com:

The crimson message at the top of his computer screen keeps a running total of the abuse reports that are awaiting action. Some complaints don’t ultimately turn up abuse – coarse language, ad hominem attacks, and the like – but rather just a political stance that the person doing the complaining doesn’t care for. So a mod needs to evaluate each complaint and decide either to remove the comment or let it stand.

He then goes on to document how certain stories press particular hot buttons of the readers and what starts as being informative quickly dives into bouts of mutual abuse, facilitated he argues by an apparent guarantee of anonymity:

Anonymous commentary is a push and pull between privacy and trust, and the implications extend beyond news sites to include Web reviews for everything from books to technology to hotel rooms. Online postings can sway political opinion and heavily influence whether products or businesses thrive or fail. They can make or break reputations and livelihoods. On one side, anonymous comments give users the freedom to be completely candid in a public forum. On the other, that freedom can be abused and manipulated to spread lies or mask hidden agendas. With all that in the balance, the thinking goes, shouldn’t we know who’s saying these things?

The kicker is the sliding ‘signal to noise ratio’, and the predominance of not just of barfly conversations, but the kind of premeditated ‘talking about’ fair gaming aimed (whether casually or systematically) at destroying the kind of genuine engagement between strangers the Internet has excelled at.

The value is still there but, he argues, labouring under the muggy weather of the demagogically simplified mob:

I’ve always loved finding the hidden gems in online comments – the surprising slice of data that makes me question one of my political assumptions, the pithy one-liner that makes me laugh out loud. But those gems seem increasingly rare amid all the yelling and hollow rage and predictable talking points [emphasis added].

So he went out to speak directly to some of those few heavy users (commonly not more than 1% of the regular readers of any given website) that contribute most of the comments. Many were happy to talk, some even happy to be named. The ones who weren’t were the:

…the screamers, troublemakers, and trolls (Internet slang for people behind inflammatory posts). Not a single one. The loudest, most aggressive voices grew mum when asked to explain themselves, to engage in an actual discussion. The trolls appear to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.

So back to anonymity. Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian is agin it:

“My competitor allows anonymous comments,” he says. “We don’t. We get 10 times what they get. My users are more willing to engage in conversation, because they know who they are arguing with.”

Well, maybe. In truth, the digital age has seen ordinary folk willingly surrender to websites the kind of data sets that already makes them very readily identifiable. Perhaps, as Swidey concludes, “the best approach to getting people to behave better online is just reminding them how easy it is to figure out who they really are.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty