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All Things in Moderation

I have no idea what a publication should do when it comes to comments, but it’s a fascinating problem.

September 7, 2017
 
 

Inside Higher Ed has asked its readers what comment policy would be best. Last I checked there were over 100 responses. There’s also a survey for those who want to go that route. I spent a sabbatical studying online reading communities and found a wide variety of moderation being employed, from having lists of “forbidden topics” to anarchic free-fall-alls in which flames were smothered with jokes and affection. The communities I studied were relatively small, formed around an affinity for a particular genre of fiction, which doesn’t transfer well to IHE’s situation. News organizations have difficult decisions to make.

I agree with what appears to be a widely-held feeling that people should be allowed anonymity online. Facebook doesn’t like it because they are an advertising and data-gathering company and it’s easier to match up data sets about individuals when people are forced to use their real names. danah boyd wrote about this quite persuasively back in 2011 when Facebook decided we should have a singular identity with an officially recognized name. In the case of a higher ed publication, there are enough examples of people being punished for their views that anonymity seems a valuable safety issue.

I also have written here about my own ambivalence about comments. (I think that one set a record for numbers of comments on my blog posts.) When a long string of comments is almost exclusively combative and negative, I feel reluctant to say anything even though I have nothing to lose but time and my equanimity. I have tenure and haven’t received loads of death threats, unlike lots of people with public lives. Some topics seem to be perennially contentious. I have the impression contentiousness increased when the Chronicle adopted a strategy many news organizations, including the New York Times, have resorted to – closing comments on many or most stories. It’s incredibly expensive to have comments. You have to moderate them to avoid a cesspool of ads and obscenities. No matter how you manage moderation, people will be unhappy about comments. And it will cost a lot of money that could go to things like hiring reporters.

James Grimmelmann wrote an article I really like about the challenges of moderation. There are entire books about what happens in the comments. I suspect journalists and news industry types have sessions on what to do about comments regularly. Facebook and Twitter are trying to get a handle on moderating stuff, and Facebook has hired thousands of people to watch videos that are uploaded showing murders, rapes, unhinged rants, etc. – work that  takes a terrible toll on people. Moderation is taxing. Then there are the bots – the percentage of messages posted to Twitter that aren’t from human individuals is pretty high. Controversy is good for clicks, and yet even click-reliant sites are getting worried about the influence wars being fought on their sites. Intentional disinformation is warping our understanding of reality and creating parallel universes – and it matters.

Remember Web 2.0? Michael Wesch made a great little video about it 2007.

 

It was pretty optimistic about the democratizing of communication online, but he posed a lot of questions at the end. We are far from having good answers ten years later. I wish the editors of IHE luck in figuring out what the best approach will be.

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