Thursday, April 30, 2009

Comments and the Commenters who make them

Virginia Heffernan writes a piece in the New York Times about the low quality of comments on news sites like the New York Times, the WaPo and Slate. She says:
But as it is, online commentary is a bête noire for journalists and readers alike. Most journalists hate to read it, because it’s stinging and distracting, and readers rarely plow through long comments sections unless they intend to post something themselves. But perhaps the comments have become so reader-unfriendly, in part, because of the conventions of the Web-comment form.
She blames the 24/7 access in part, with late-night tin-foil-hat-wearing people often being the first to weight in on an article, setting the tone for the discourse of the rest of the comments. Also, people who comment tend to be people who have the time and inclination to comment and these are not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer.

I actually wrote a best-practices document on how to write good comments, aimed at students working in class blogs. Here's what I said:

1. Comment on the original post topic.

2. Contribute something new to the conversation.

3. Even if you disagree, remain polite.

4. Don't comment for the sake of commenting. Don't just say, "Yeah, I agree." You're not adding to the conversation.

5. Keep your comment fairly brief. If you find yourself wanting to say a lot more, write your own post and then link to it in the comments.

6. Leave a link. This can be a link to your blog that you type into the comment form or leave a link to resources that might help the author.
Obviously, these take into account the usual short form students often resort to in online forums. These suggestions are for K-12 students. The second point, I think, is the most important, and perhaps what Heffernan is most disappointed by in reader comments. Most comments seem to be self-serving and/or polemic and the commenter does not seem to want to engage in a conversation with the author. But I think the article authors are also to blame for this. Rarely do I see an author weigh in in the comment section. I'm not suggesting they feed the trolls, but they could certainly respond to the comments that do have merit, which might encourage people who want to engage in a conversation instead of a shouting match to comment more often. The trolls might eventually get drowned out by the reasonable commenters.

I really like comments on articles, even the ones that aren't so nice. Newspaper articles and blogs seem to me to be like soapboxes even more than personal blogs are. They don't always invite reader commentary in their rhetorical strategies. They set themselves up as experts who know the answers. I like seeing what other people think in the comments. It's a way of gaging my own reaction. Am I crazy for hating/loving/being confused by this? What arguments can be made against this? What does this mean in a larger context? It is also a window into the audience. Comments on IHE articles always cause me to raise my eyebrows. Comments on tech articles reveal a bit about the culture of the field. I like having that insight, even if it's messy and crazy and a bit scary at times. I think it's good to know that not everyone in the world is reasonable. Though it might also be good to show those people how they might become more reasonable while still getting their voices heard.