Commenters, can't live with 'em ...

PersonalizedBaseballBat1When you talk to website editors these days, it's very easy to figure out that most of them have a love-hate relationship with the "comments pages" that are such a big part of what the whole interactive Web 2.0 thing is supposed to be about. What's the big problem?

Simply stated, there is no way for a computer to edit a comments board. And if you leave your site's comments pages open, you are going to have to spend hours and hours of time trying to monitor them. It takes hours to do a bad job of keeping comments threads civil and on target. I have no idea how long it takes to do a good job, since I have never managed to do that. I do the best that I can do and so do MZ, Daniel and Mark. We all have families and jobs and lives, you know.

The key problem here at GetReligion is that a high percentage of our readers want to argue about the religious content of religion-news events, rather than discuss the mainstream media's coverage of those events (and trends and personalities, etc.).

I could cite thousands of examples, but all you have to do is click here and look at a few Mormon threads to see what I am talking about.

It's a simple Catch-22 thing. Let's say that a big newspaper says that evangelicals are upset about a Mormon candidate for the White House because of polygamy. Tmatt then writes a post noting that, if you check a few evangelical websites -- the Southern Baptist Convention is a good place to start -- it's easy to see that the real controversy centers on issues linked to the very nature of God and the Trinity. It's hard to find a major evangelical politico who doesn't know what the modern Mormon hierarchy teaches about polygamy and Celestial Marriage. Thus, reporters often miss the real story.

At that point -- rather than discussing MSM articles that get these topics right, or spotlighting articles that get it wrong, or leaving comments that disagree with my analysis of the problem -- online warfare breaks out between critics and defends of the Latter-day Saints. World without end. Amen.

So how are journalists supposed to write about that topic? How do we do the work that we need to do? Here at GetReligion, our goal, first and foremost, is to allow journalists to discuss their work and to share ideas and resources. And argue with us, too, of course. But the goal is to focus on journalism.

It also helps if people are willing to point us toward real, live information to back their cases -- as opposed to digitally screaming at us. Some people never use a fly swatter when a baseball bat will do. Others create straw men that they then enjoy tearing apart, accusing various GetReligionistas or saying things that we did not write (often attempting to read our minds in the process).

I could go on, but perhaps a recent example will do.

If you want to know how not to write a GetReligion comment, here is a nice template. Note that this is a response to a request for the reader to share some actual information -- perhaps a URL or two. The topic was homosexuality and the church and I had just pointed readers toward some sources on the left and right that journalists tend to trust. This led to some exchanges with a reader whose email address is now in our "moderation" queue. In one of his final replies he wrote:

Good night, bigot. I will not visit with data sources; it isn't Do A Bigot's Homework Day.

I suggest that you get out a little more instead of selectively relying on only the poll data that supports your foregone conclusions.

I'm content to wait until you die wrong.

strawmanThis is the sort of comment, I imagine, that led to a short Time essay by Lev Grossman that I quite enjoyed, one that ran with the headline "Post Apocalypse." Here is a sample:

Web publishers have begun to offer commenting on everything -- posts, videos, pictures, whatever -- like it was a kind of interactive condiment. Now practically anything on the Web collects comments the way a whale collects barnacles. In theory, it's a great thing. We're giving the people a voice! But the reality is that commenting either attracts loathsome people or somehow causes ordinary people to express themselves in a way that is loathsome.

A random example: on June 11, a user called way21337 uploaded a video to YouTube. It's titled My new gerbil, and it shows, in fact, a black-and-white gerbil snuffling around cutely in somebody's hand. It is 11 seconds long. By press time, it had acquired 102 comments. Let's take a look! They begin with NewTyhuss, who writes, "sweet!" Things start going south with comment No. 4: "id hit it." (Good one, ZRace67!) After a week, we're down to eldergod: "why dont u shove that gerbil up yur ass and quit posting stupid videos." bwalhof writes, "kill yourself. fast." And so on. ...

The horribleness of commenters isn't really a mystery: Internet anonymity is disinhibiting, and people are basically mean anyway. Nor is it a mystery why the people who run websites put up with commenters: the economic model for Internet content is based on advertising, which means it's based on traffic volume, and comments mean traffic. They're part of the things that make online publishing work. TIME.com enables comments on its blogs, including mine.) It's just hard to tell whether they're ruining the Web faster than they can save it.

I should stop now, before this turns into an essay on the Total Depravity Of Man (that would get us a wave of comments from Grand Rapids). However, note that what we are talking about -- viewed from one perspective -- in the future of online journalism. Let me repeat the obvious: There is no way for a computer to do the work of a good editor.

Meanwhile, GetReligion has legions of wonderful, constructive regulars -- left and right -- who contribute to our comments pages from time to time. Many others use our "submit a story" feature as a way of telling us about the good and the bad that they see in religion-news reports that they see online or in their local media. There is no way that we can read even half of what we need to read. We appreciate the help.

Good commenters, as a rule, comment unto others as they would want others to comment unto them, or something like that. They argue that journalists should get things right and also assume that the overwhelming majority of journalists truly want to get things right. Good commenters cite real information that others can read online. They don't call people by ugly names and try to read other people's minds. When they criticize a post they quote the passage they they want to criticize. They don't assume false names and try to hid behind ghost email addresses.

Most of all, they focus on journalism issues -- because that is why GetReligion is here in the first place. We are pro journalism. We want to cheer more than we jeer, whenever we open online news sites to read about religion. And that's the end of this sermon. So there.

Please respect our Commenting Policy