Tag Archives: comments

The comment cesspool

Once upon a time, journalists had mixed opinions about allowing readers to comment on news articles, and having those comments appear below the articles on websites.

I had to deal with it nine years ago, when I setup a website for my student newspaper, and each article was open to comments by default.

Some welcomed the chance to converse with readers. But others said many of the comments were in bad taste, took personal cheap shots at the author or subject, and in general weren’t helpful. They brought down the level of debate instead of enhancing it. And journalists who wanted to share links to their work had to share links to the comments as well.

More recently, a few years ago, the debate was similar in a professional environment. On the part of media bosses, there was a hunger for comments. Not only do active comment sections boost traffic, but they provide free material to use. The local CBC newscast, for example, regularly quotes from reader comments online. The Gazette uses a comment or two on Page A2 of every issue.

Now, though, the opinion is near-unanimous, at least on the part of front-line workers: opening comments on news articles, particularly the ones which are likely to generate debate, exposes them to a rotten cesspool of human ignorance and hatred.

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Long bare arms and the long tail

The Gazette always covers the Jazz Festival pretty hard. This year, as they have for the past few, they send a bunch of people (some professional music critics, others who just like jazz) to various shows and have them blog their impressions on the Words and Music blog. It’s averaging between eight and 13 posts a day, which is a lot for any blog.

This week Jeff Heinrich, who just recently left the city department and moved into features (a.k.a. arts and life) wrote a not-so-nice review of Maria Schneider. The post has been “burning up the web” (and Twitter), leading to a staggering 56 103 comments so far, every single one of them insulting.

I’m left wondering: is it really that bad? Is Heinrich’s descriptions of “irritatingly stiff body-language” or “middle-aged women in the audience” really sexist and ill-informed? Or are these commenters (most of whom, to their credit, use what appear to be their full names) just a bunch of people who disagree with a bad review (and never saw the long feature piece previewing the show, because they’re Maria Schneider fans who were pointed to the post, not Gazette readers who came across it on their own)?

And do you need a degree in musicology to review a jazz show?


UPDATE: As more and more bloggers are linking to the post, and more hate-filled comments come in accusing Heinrich of not being nice (including one apparently from Maria Schneider herself), the author responds in a comment, in which he explains that he’s not a music critic and it wasn’t a review:

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Why get news when you can hear what some random know-nothing thinks?

With the recent comment moderation scandal at the CBC (yeah, I’ll just go ahead and call it a scandal there), some people have asked whether we’re all that interested in hearing uninformed comments from random people attached to news stories.

I’ve argued before that high-traffic websites (like CBC) should be more stringent with moderation, because nobody is going to read through hundreds of comments for the few that are actually worth reading. At the very least, some sort of comment ranking or “featured comments” system should be put in place to make the quality ones stand out.

I also argue against so-called “reverse publishing”, where anonymous or pseudonymous web comments are republished in offline media.

This video, spotted on Nora Young’s Spark blog, is a good (and funny) example of the pointlessness of filling the airwaves with comments from random people who don’t know what they’re talking about. (I could have also posted a video of CNN’s Rick Sanchez reading Twitter comments, but that’s more sad than funny.)

Is CBC moderating comments enough?

Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba are apparently upset with comment moderation on the CBC’s website, which they say let through a bunch of racist comments on stories about native communities.

CBC moderates comments on news stories, but they’re fairly liberal about it, leaving in many which come close to the line.

Also of note here is that CBC outsources comment moderation to an outfit called ICUC, which moderates many Canadian media websites. It’s unclear if they let the comments through or if it was done by CBC staff, but (The Globe says ICUC does handle moderation services.) This underscores the fact that those moderating comments need to have very good training in laws concerning libel and hate speech.

UPDATE: The Globe and Mail explores the issue, with some examples of offending comments. CBC News also covers it, with quotes from management saying they’re taking a look at the issue, and there’s a post at Inside the CBC as well.

Newspaper letter credibility scores one at the Star

Last month, the Toronto Star made an interesting decision concerning so-called “user-generated content”: It decided it would no longer be publishing anonymous or pseudonymous web comments on its letters-to-the-editor page. Such “reverse publishing” is being used by a lot of newspapers who want to appear all hip and cool and stuff, and are desperate to increase traffic to their horrible websites.

The main argument, which was also expressed by many people inside the Star’s newsroom (they even circulated a petition about it), is that printing these comments alongside letters to the editor essentially creates a double standard: Letters to the editor must be signed and verified if submitted by email or mail, but don’t have to be if they’re posted in an online forum.

It’s a valid argument, but it ignores the big secret about letters to the editor: The verification process for “real” letters isn’t much of a verification process at all.

Many newspapers, especially smaller ones, don’t even check that the person whose name appears at the bottom of the letter is in fact the person who wrote it. They just copy and paste from their email inbox and assume that if there’s a full name that doesn’t read “Anita Bath”, it’s probably legitimate.

Larger newspapers, like the Star, require readers to send their phone number, and an editor or secretary calls them up and verifies their name and whether they wrote the letter. There’s no exchange of ID, no looking names up in a database, just a phone call. It works mainly because very few people are going to go through that kind of trouble just to get a fake letter into the newspaper.

Still, I think the change is a good one, if only because seeing online handles like “geeko79”, “No McCain fries for John McCain” and “Fagstein” attached to grammatically-incorrect texts in a supposedly respectable newspaper looks ridiculous.

The policy change doesn’t affect the website; people will still be able to post with silly pseudonyms there, though that’s not what public editor Kathy English would have decided:

I would prefer the Star demand real names of those who comment online. I’ve been told that’s a near-impossible expectation in the online environment. I don’t buy that.

Of course, online faces the same problem. Restrict it to verified names, and you cut off most discussion and spent lots of time verifying IDs. The more moderation controls you have, the less commentary you have and the less active the forum becomes.

(via J-Source)

Nobody wants to read 1,000 comments

Patrick Lagacé brought up a point about comments on blogs, and how he’s not entirely sure what good they do him. Being a popular blog, it gets a lot of trolls and other pointless and unhelpful commentary. Comments easily reach into the dozens, sometimes hundreds.

That was also the subject of an interview Pat did on CIBL with Michel Dumais (Mario Asselin has the details) in which Pat totally name-drops me (near the end of the audio clip):

Dumais: … Vous êtes très fréquenté, vous générez beaucoup de commentaires. Mais ça serait pas intéressant pour vous peut-être de commencer à fréquenter aussi des autres blogues et à laisser des commentaires? …

Lagacé: Oui, j’essai de faire un peu. En fait le seul blogue ou je le fait, j’estime que c’est le meilleur blogue de couverture médiatique à Montréal, c’est le blogue de Steve Faguaiylle … Faguy… son blogue c’est Fagstein — qui couvre les médias montréalais, surtout anglo, mais un peu québecois… francophone aussi. C’est le seul ou je vais. Les autres, je sais pas. Un peu de manque de temps, un peu de manque d’intérêt.

(If my blog were a movie, that quote would go at the top of the poster.)

Although the number of comments on Pat’s blog causes a bit of professional jealousy on my part (second only to hair jealousy), it’s very rare that I’ll read the comments attached to one of his posts. Not so much because of the trolling (though it is apparent), but because there’s just so darn many of them. I don’t have time to read all the posts on blogs I’m subscribed to as it is. I certainly don’t have time to read 50 comments attached to each post, especially when they don’t have anything interesting to add.

And then there’s situations when the number of comments simply gets out of hand. The decapitation-on-a-bus story I talked about earlier now has 1,700 comments, most of which are repetitive. Has anyone read them all?

One easy solution is to stop approving troll comments. We set minimum limits (usually legal ones) for the types of comments we approve in moderation, but why set the barrier so low? Why not set them to the same level as we do letters to the editor? Just because there is space for more doesn’t mean we should bury any truly interesting comments in a pile of useless junk.

But even then, the number of comments can still be unbearable in very popular blogs or news stories or anywhere else one might have an attached discussion forum. When that happens, it’s time to start removing comments that aren’t really interesting (comments that simply agree, disagree, approve, disapprove, or otherwise give a comment without explaining it or adding anything new, as well as those that repeat things already said by others).

The standard response to that is: That’s censorship. It’s not though, it’s moderation. Nobody’s stopping you from posting your useless comments about my blog post on your blog or on some other forum somewhere. When I disapprove a comment it’s because I find it of no use to my readership.

But some still think that’s too far. So is there another method to get these runaway comments under control?

Well, Slashdot answered that question years ago with its comment system. The website, whose format looks very similar to blogs even though it predates them, has a threaded comment system, so comments can be traced back to their parents and sorted according to thread. This level of organization (and the ability to turn it on or off as needed) helps a big deal when dealing with a large number of comments.

More importantly, though, Slashdot has a peer moderation system that allows users to rate each others’ comments. Positive reviews increase a comment’s rating, and negative reviews decrease it. The result is that each comment is assigned a numerical rating (from -1 to +5), and readers can filter comments based on that rating. Set it to zero to get rid of just the trolls. Set it to +5 to get only the dozen or so truly exceptional or interesting or useful comments you need.

I’m surprised that every large-scale blogging system ever made hasn’t copied this system in some way. Instead, you see unthreaded comments with no rating system. The only judgment made is whether they meet the minimum requirements for posting, and that’s not good enough when our attention is so limited.

My blog, though it gets quite a few comments, doesn’t get near enough to start implementing stricter screening or peer moderation, but if I had 500 comments a day, I would certainly seriously consider it.

Decapitation leads to passioned debate

There are hundreds of comments (thanks to a bit of Farkage) on this rather disturbing CBC story about a man who suddenly stabbed and killed (and decapitated) a sleeping fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus.

The comments are all debating three different topics:

  1. What should the passengers have done? Some say they should have intervened, even at personal risk:

    37 adults could not stop this poor child from getting decapitated. 37 adults chose to cowardly permit a haneous murder right under their noses. These 37 cowards may have saved a few scratches on their skin to lose their souls.

    Many many more sane people say that a large man with a large knife in an insane homicidal rage can’t be safely disarmed on a bus by civilians. As it is they barely escaped serious injury.

  2. Should the death penalty be brought back for cases like this? This debate, tied somewhat with the debate on how mentally ill criminals should be treated (and whether or not the man in question was mentally ill), doesn’t deal with the facts in this case much.
  3. Should we allow concealed weapons on buses? Gun control can’t possibly not be a debate here, even though no guns were involved. My favourite comment:

    If Canadians were permitted concealed carry of firearms, one of the other passengers would have plugged that psychopath before he had the chance to cut the poor victim’s head off. Just another example of Canada’s soccer mom gun laws working against the interests of honest citizens.

    See if that guy tries to ever cut MY head off… staring at the barrel of my .357

    Never bring a knife to a gun fight, psychoboy.

    That sounds like rock-solid logic. (Unless of course the psychopath had a concealed firearm and killed his victim in one shot, leading to the same result.)

  4. Should police have shot to kill once they got on scene? The victim had already been decapitated by this point, so I guess the odds of recovery were slim. But some people seem to think that summary police execution is justified in cases like this.

    What I really wonder about is why didn’t the police shoot the perpetrator as soon as they could? With that many witnesses, the perpetrator showing off the head of his victim, the amount of blood that had to be on the scene,would there be any need for court to determine his guilt?

    Others suggest that’s not a very rational way of thinking:

    There should be some minimum age or education required to post on this news site. How many more people are going to say that we just kill this guy without a trial? What the hell country do you think you are living in?

  5. Should we install metal detectors in bus terminals? How far do we want to go to ensure our safety? This far?

    Never mind the metal detectors. We can’t be safe until we are all locked up so we can’t harm others or harm ourselves.

    Think how much safety would be improved on planes and buses if we were handcuffed to our chairs by security guards while in transit. This would stop every assault and every hijacking attempt on an aircraft or bus.

    Perhaps the human equivalents of pet carriers are what is needed to ensure our safety. Any time we go out in public, we can be locked into a sort of rolling sarcophagus, and can be wheeled around wherever we need to go by security guards.

    These kinds of measures may seem extreme, but no sacrifice is too great to make for safety.

There. Now you don’t have to spend hours reading the comments.

UPDATE: 1,500 comments and counting in under 24 hours.

Sur le Web: Get a clue

RadCan’s Sur le Web, a blog-style page with links to interesting things online, has added the ability for users to comment, except with a strange rule: No links. Period.

Sur le Web is a very strange animal in the local blogosphere:

  • Each post is paired with a tiny video of the blogger’s talking head explaining what we’ve just read.
  • Permalinks are created with page anchors as opposed to individual pages, meaning they become useless after a couple of days.
  • The site’s RSS feed has no text for its posts

Now this. I’m seriously tempted to unsubscribe as a protest, and would have done so long ago had the site been any less useful for information. But the fact that it seems to intentionally make it as difficult as possible to use annoys me to no end.

I couldn’t care less about comments. Fix everything else first.

But the fact that a blog about links to stuff online doesn’t allow links in its comments? That’s insane.

Among some of RadCan’s other draconian rules:

  • No comments in languages other than French
  • No anonymous or pseudonymous comments
  • No more than three comments per person per discussion

If similar rules had been put in place at CBC.ca, we’d be hearing about it. Maybe we need a Radio-Canada version of Inside the CBC?