I remember exactly when I concluded that nasty or even vicious website comments were, like herpes, an unfixable situation. It was March of last year and I was overseeing a blog known for its particularly cruel (and cruelly funny) peanut gallery. One day, I received an email from a lawyer alleging no fewer than 25 acts of defamation in the comments section of a post about her. Tops among the offending barbs were references to a "wizard sleeve," the turgid mention of "one large waiting for you," and a concise accusation: "you whore." These were quickly removed, but it wouldn't be the last time she complained.
The problem with monitoring comments is simple: In order to keep them clean, you need either a system that requires the commenters to identify themselves -- and then endure the chilling effect on comments that 's sure to result. Or you need real live humans to monitor and, when necessary, delete and ban. Humans, as we know, are expensive and don't fit into the cost structures of leaner and leaner publishing operations. Given the choice between an apparently engagement-free website and the additional cost of those humans, many publishers choose to do little to nothing and hide behind a hazy free-speech defense. Until now, no one really judged them for that .
It will be interesting to see what impact Anil Dash's gauntlet-throwing post, "If Your Website's Full of Assholes, It's Your Fault," will have on this status quo. Mr. Dash, a blogger before there was a business model for it, turns the onus on publishers to properly manage their community, arguing that if they can't find the budget to do so, they should turn off the comments or even turn off the site. The first of his five steps to an improved Internet is :
You should have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community. One of the easiest ways to ensure valuable contributions on your site is to make people responsible by having dedicated, engaged, involved community moderators who have the power to delete comments and ban users (in the worst case) but also to answer questions and guide conversations for people who are unsure of appropriate behavior (in the best cases). Sites that do this, like MetaFilter and Stack Exchange sites (disclosure, I'm a proud board member of Stack Exchange), get good results. Those that don't, don't. If you can't afford to invest the time or money in grooming and rewarding good community moderators? Then maybe don't have comments. And keep in mind: You need lots of these moderators. The sites with the best communities have a really low ratio of community members to moderators.
Mr. Dash's plan isn't going to help the many websites out there whose filthy comments sections are the main draw, though I suppose nothing will. For those publishers toeing the edge of respectability, Mr. Dash offers some nice moral guidance, if not a workable program.
The media theorist Marshall McLuhan would have been 100 years old this week and the occasion has brought out some fine recognitions of the media theorist, including Megan Garber's appraisal of his legacy for the Nieman Journalism Lab:
He was right, about not everything but a lot, which is why today he is a Media Guru and a YouTube sensation and a ubiquitous subject of biographies both cheeky and earnest and a fixture of culture both nerd and pop, which are increasingly the same thing. He is the patron saint of Wired. Today, as the "electronic" age zips and zaps into the digital, as we are spun by the centrifugal forces of a nascent revolution that we can't fully perceive because we're the ones doing the spinning, McLuhan's theories seem epic and urgent and obvious all at the same time. And McLuhan himself -- the teacher, the thinker, the darling of the media he both measured and mocked -- seems both more relevant, and less so, than ever before.
Paul Ford -- back in the Best Media Writing for the second consecutive week -- finds a place for our traditional media companies and the professional content creators who roam their halls even in the McLuhanesqe notion of the "end of endings" -- social media-dominated world that forsakes timeworn, linear narrative structures for ceaseless feeds and the algorithmic dishing up of information. Here he is in New York Magazine:
Social media has no understanding of anything aside from the connections between individuals and the ceaseless flow of time: No beginnings, and no endings. These disparate threads of human existence alternately fascinate and horrify that part of the media world that grew up on topic sentences and strong conclusions. This world of old media is like a giant steampunk machine that organizes time into stories. I call it the Epiphanator, and it has always known the value of a meaningful conclusion. The Epiphanator sits in midtown Manhattan and clunks along, at Conde Nast and at the Times and in Rockefeller Center. Once a day it makes a terrible grinding noise and spits out newspapers and TV shows. Once a week it spits out weeklies and more TV shows. Once a month it produces glossy magazines. All too often it makes movies, and novels.
Wired's Tim Carmody has an appropriately self-conscious and pictorially driven amble through McLuhan's "The Medium Is the Message." Not an easy one to excerpt but ...
McLuhan is , I think, too often hailed as a futurist. He was a futurist, perhaps but a most peculiar, maybe entirely idiosyncratic kind.
McLuhan's most powerful contributions were of this sort: "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." Our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand -- including quite possibly McLuhan himself.
Finally, in non-McLuhan news, an interesting argument from Slate's Farhad Manjoo that Twitter should double its character limit, to 280. The idea would be to promote real conversation on the platform, which for me has pretty much been reduced to a news feed interrupted by one-liners. It is a miserable conduit for real, two-way discussion. Here is Mr. Manjoo:
Proponents of Twitter's limit argue that I should feel frustrated when I tweet. The classic defense of the 140-character perimeter is that , as with a haiku or sonnet, a rigid form inspires creativity. I don't buy it. For one thing, that argument positions Twitter as more high-minded than it really is , or needs to be. Obviously, we aren't all poets, and we shouldn't have to be to use a mainstream social network. Rather than poetry, Twitter's limit seems to encourage sloppiness and sound bites. You can't fit a complicated argument in 140 characters, but it's the perfect size to squeeze in ad-hominem attacks, to misdirect, or to shrug off people who challenge you. (See @keitholbermann.)