Friday, July 06, 2007

Web Pollution: The Nastiness of Blog Comments

I came across a number of related entries today on the topic of derogatory blog comments. Mike Carney at USA Today reports that a Danish newspaper has banned dozens of readers for leaving "unproductive" comments:

Editors at the Danish news site thought that a few dozen readers weren't adding much to the conversation, so they decided to delete their comments and ban them from the site for two weeks.

"It seems these bloggers don't have anything else to do, than write derogatory comments," editor Ole Wejse Svarrer says, according to a report at Poynter Online.

This points to a larger issue with reader interactivity that media organizations are confronting in newsrooms around the world.
CBS News, for example, had to stop accepting comments on stories about Sen. Barack Obama because of they were drawing too many racist screeds. The Washington Post's website saw a similar surge in what the paper's media reporter describes as "web pollution."
I think "web pollution" is the appropriate term, especially when much of the attacks on bloggers amount to pure excrement. I've had my share of it -- just nasty stuff, often leaving me flabbergasted at the level of hatred mounted against me and the things I've written. It's amazing as well to read attacks on other bloggers, and especially to observe how different individuals handle it. Ad hominem attacks are the opposite of reasoned interchange. It's frustrating really, as much of the web pollution just thrives in the anonymous, wild west wonderland of the web. There are no standards and no accountability. It's no wonder that many bloggers moderate comments. I did for awhile, but found it constraining, and a few commenters complained about being "locked out" of my page. I'm sympathetic, because I myself don't love waiting for the "blog owner's approval" of my pithy ripostes.

But check out Ann Althouse's post today, "
Let's Talk About the Commenters." Althouse links to a post by JSL over at Valley of the Shadow. JSL wrote about the nastiness of the comments section on Althouse's page, and he named the names of the nastiest of the nasties:

I used to comment on her Blog before I started this one. She is a a Democrat who is shifting rightward. I took the same journey back in 1992. Her Blog is commentators heaven. She posts, and the comments go flying. However, since she chose Bush over Kerry in 2004, the Left Wing Blogosphere has charged her with heresy and never forgiven Professor Althouse's vote.
Althouse's page is indeed blog commenters heaven. I like to comment there frequently myself -- indeed, that's where a learned of "comment blogs," blogs created simply to comment on a Blogger blog. Comment blogs are mostly anonymous, so people are able to defame, destroy, and pretty much rip the blog proprietor to shreds. It takes a lot of stomach to tolerate it. Even Althouse, in all her fortitude, banned comments from her page for awhile. Read that whole post, which is practically a must-read item for anyone pulling their hair out over comment pollution. But let me quote this nice summation of the issues, from Althouse's own comment in the comments section of her post on commenting:

The comments section is for respectful, reasonable discussion, not assessments of my personality or hostile rants. Humor is fine, but I'm not accepting abuse just because it can also be called a joke.
One of the things I like about Althouse is her ability to blog on just about everything under the sun, holding little back, deflecting all comers intelligently, all the while refusing to succumb to the lure of blogging under a pseudonym.

I think the comments function and the interactivity of blogging makes the medium incredibly stimulating. Indeed, I don't care for blogs that aren't all that interactive, because for me they've lost their importance as a medium of democratic exchange. I'll name names:
I'm often frustrated by Dan Drezner's blogging, because he doesn't jump in and respond to comments, and he's very much antiseptic in his approach to posts. The academic culture is restraining in that sense (reputation matters, as well as tenure and promotion), and he's not pseudonymous, so his manner is understandable. But much is lost when the proprietor doesn't intervene now and then to guide the coffee shop debate on their own page. I could say the same thing about Betsy Newmark, although she's makes up for her comment non-intervention with a strong ideological bent, which is pretty much no-holds-barred partisanship (all with no foul language). There are more non-commenters of note, but I don't want to ruffle any feathers.

In any case, one learns to live with the ugliness and adapt. I will always take the high-ground of reasoned exchange in debate. Well not always: I did have two episodes dealing with ad hominem comment nastiness, exchanges through which I learned that sometimes even the stiff-upper lip is no protection against the most unprincipled, down-and-dirty attacks. Responding head on can actually be a little liberating, though, since it just feels good to let loose and fight fire with fire (see my two posts covering the mudslinging exchanges,
here and here). Having said that, I do have an academic reputation to maintain. So thank goodness Althouse keeps blogging: She sets a good standard for emulating comment toleration.

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