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Friday, October 16, 2009

We have the technology to make people nice to each other

Posted By on 10.16.09 at 02:58 PM

Mary Schmich fires the latest salvo about newspaper comment boards. I've spoken my unpopular and perhaps ill-considered opinion that letting the heathens scream at each other is a societal benefit insofar as it emphasizes how nasty, brutish, and short-tempered people are, but there are other options, too - and it's endlessly frustrating when writers seize on anonymity as the sole or even primary cause of incivility, when it's not only clear that people are willing to be uncivil under their own names, but that there are plenty of prominent anonymized online communities that do a better job of maintaining a baseline level of civility.

Some tips:

1) If you don't like "comments," don't have them. And I don't mean eliminating all online community. Salon - brilliantly, I think - doesn't have "comments." They have "letters." And while I can't prove the cause and effect, I think their letters are better than the comments in Slate's "Fray," because if you call something a fray, you reap what you sow (also Slate could really do a better job of raising the level of its often berserk editorial discourse, but that's a different matter). DailyKos encourages long-form, thoughtful commentary by letting users write "diaries."

2) Voting and rating systems: Lots and lots of blogs have these, and newspapers usually don't. Check out Slashdot, Metafilter [Update: see comment, this is more properly under #4], DailyKos, and the Gawker blogs, all of which have had comment sections that range from incredibly valuable to relatively sane. You can actually alter the technology to encourage community.

3) Interact with and reward good commenters, and fight the ones that suck. DailyKos, for instance, has an ongoing front-page series run by the "Rescue Rangers" in which they highlight the best user diaries.

4) Have community managers that do some or all of the above. They don't have to be paid - you can grant privileges to active community members - but hiring someone is obviously the most time-efficient way of guaranteeing a degree of professionalism.

5) Stop employing Jonah "the white male is the Jew of liberal fascism" "seriously, he wrote that" Goldberg. Because it makes reasonable people less sympathetic to complaints about crazy jerks when TribCo is paying a crazy jerk to write crazy jerk things defending other crazy jerks.

Tangent: Pseudonymity is not the same as anonymity. For example, there's a woman who goes by the handle aimai on NoMoreMisterNiceBlog and in the comment sections on various blogs I read. I know that she's the granddaughter of I.F. Stone, and that she's friends of friends with Joe Klein, but that's about it. I don't know her real name, but I know aimai, because that's her online identity - I see it a lot, and it carries a lot of weight in the comments sections because people know that aimai is thoughtful, smart, and funny. Likewise Doghouse Riley, one of my favorite bloggers and a regular at some of my favorite blogs . I wouldn't know the person behind the handle from Adam, other than that he lives in the Indianapolis area and is married to a teacher, but I'm very familiar with his online presence.

Anonymity just isn't the biggest problem - it's community. People will, as my pastor friend points out, tend towards community because that's what people do, but it's incumbent upon content providers to provide some structure for that, just as it's incumbent upon schools to provide structured learning environments for kids, or governments to provide basic infrastructure for encouraging safety, commerce, and participation.

Perhaps incumbent isn't the right word. Like I've said, I see some value in unrestrained comment boards. But reasonable people whom I trust think I'm wrong, and I might be. Either way, lots of people don't like them and want something different. And that's possible, and there are existing methods that clearly work. None of these methods are a magic bullet, though - civility requires time, money, and effort on the part of civil people, online just as anywhere else.

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