Comments on comments on comments

Ah, irony.

On the current On the Media, Bob Garfield launches into a screed on those who launch into screeds in online comments. He quotes Gawker — Gawker! — getting on his high-horse about comments. He talks with This American Life’s Ira Glass about why he got rid of comments on his site. But then he asks Glass something so leading — Garfield only tells about about his question but unfortunately does not reveal it to us — that Glass loses his constant cool for a moment in a rousing defense of vox pop. And then, for balance, Garfield has on a newspaper editor who — amen to this — says she thought we were way past this debate as she explains the value she gets from comments.

But here’s the kicker: Garfield finishes off telling us about comments to his Ad Age review of a commercial deemed to be offensive to gays because Mr. T makes fun of a race-walker for being the shame of the man race. Some commenters then ridiculed Garfield’s opinion and so he lashes out at them from his radio pulpit, calling them every bit as bad as race baiters in Der Sturmer.

Now we know that the law of online discussions is that they will inevitably descend until someone plays the Nazi card (Godwin’s law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”) So here’s Garfield decrying the civility of comments — in a discussion about them that has gone on way too long — himself bringing the discussion to its lowest ebb, resorting to reductio ad Hitlerum.

Can he see the irony?

* * *

While we’re at it, there’s considerable irony in Gawker getting sniffy about comments, considering that Gawker is regularly blamed for lowering standards of journalism, conversation, and civilization. Indeed, I was the one who argued with founder Nick Denton way back in Gawker’s diaper days telling him that he needed to add comments. He resisted because he didn’t want to hoi with the polloi. He’s snotty. He’s British. But he did finally add them because he wanted traffic. Unenlightened self-interest. Comments bring him lots of traffic and revenue and notoriety.

At least we know that Denton gets the irony. He’s British.

* * *

So are comments destroying civilization? The reason this argument is so damned tired is that we all know who the assholes are and where they hang out and we know how to step around them and their smelly shopping carts. I don’t need Garfield, Gawker, or newspaper editors to protect me from them. The nannies’ obsession comes, I think, from the media and news worldview that led them to believe that they were able to package the world neatly every day in a beautiful box with a bow on top. Now that we can suddenly hear more voices, it upsets them as schmutz does Felix Ungar. The world isn’t just out of their control now but it’s messy.

But I’ve argued that we’re looking at commenting the wrong way. We spend so much of our time playing wack-a-mole with the dirty little creatures who dig up the garden that we miss the fruits and flowers. It is far more productive to curate the good people and good comments — whether they occur under an article or, better yet, via links — than it is to obsessively try to clean up life, which can’t help but be messy.

The tsk-tskers treat the web as if it is a media property and they judge it by its worst: Look what that nasty web is doing to our civilization! But, of course, that’s as silly as judging publishing by the worst of what is published. It’s even more wrong because the internet is not media — no matter how much media people insist on seeing the web in their image. Instead it is, as Doc Searls points out, a place where we talk. Walk by any streetcorner on the way to the theater and there’s a good chance you will hear stupid, illiterate, nasty things before you hear smart, well-written things. Time for a neutron bomb? No, you keep walking.

So now feel free to comment on my comments on Garfield’s and Gawker’s comments on comments. Or keep walking. Your choice.

: LATER: In the comments, Garfield responds; Jay Rosen asks to hear the question Garfield asked Glass; Doc Searls talks about the evolution of conversational tools. And on his blog, Derek Powazek responds to Garfield on the differences in comment systems and communities.

  • This is completely right on. When I first starting blogging the mean/nasty commenters drove me to distraction. But then I realized I was wasting energy on people who get no thrill from life except to be mean behind their oily computer screens because they are mad at the world. Who needs them?

    So now I just delete. delete. delete.

    And it’s delightful. I love what my commenters who are positive have to say, even the ones who disagree with me.

  • Let’s hear the question he asked Ira Glass, which caused Glass to say the host was being anti-democratic. The show has a website where they could easily put the clip. So let’s hear it.

  • It’s really a sad irony too….when you consider how long comments/forums/newsgroups/messageboards/etc. have been around. And while there may not be a lot of literature out there on comments/communities and how to manage them, there are some great papers. One I always recommend it Clay Shirky’s “A Group is its Own Worst Enemy,” which highlights the three ways in which online communities/comments can break down…

    And that’s something that both newspapers and large companies don’t understand about comments: for better or worse, those comments are forming a community. If you want that community to have standards,they have to be written and posted. Then, someone from the company has to be there to interact. If there’s no interaction, then what’s the point of the comments?

    Because, presently, there’s no interaction, comments sections on articles often seem like the old forums were moved to a visible and direct place (vs. hanging out in the forum “back rooms”, disconnected from source material.) But why do this if you don’t want to have the reporter or someone else on staff have a conversation with the rabble. Yes, interaction takes time and money–but if an organization doesn’t have the time and money to hire requisite staff to become comment section stewards, then why have comments? Are those comments sections in place just to give the “audience” voice? If that’s the case, then they’re going to get what they get and have to deal with it.

    And I’m really tired of pundits like Glass et al discussing this stuff. They’re beginning to sound really uninformed.

  • Bob Garfield


    Not fair. I played the Hitler card NOT in response to online criticism but to the offending ad itself. And why? Because it is a direct parallel, and a logical, not especially hyperbolic extension of my argument. How do you create an environment that allows you to kill 6 million people? First you caricature and dehumanize them.

    If you think this is overstatement, I suggest you consult the parents of Matthew Shepard.


  • We need to remember that the Web is still new. It’s about three seconds after the Big Bang and all we have is a few light elements, no galaxies, and a lot of heat.

    To speak of “social networking” on the Net today is laughable. We do the best we can with extremely primitive tools, none of which fully support the subtle and rich interactions we have with other people in real life.

    Moderated comments on a blog are a huge advance over the troll-filled cacophony of USENET, but still poor at encouraging the polite and civil discourse — or even the good arguments — we might enjoy over a dinner table, in a classroom, or in line at a theater.

    The older I get, the farther I see we still have to go.

    (And I turn 61 tomorrow. How the hell did that happen?)


  • AMEN! I am so over the comments naysayers that I completly ignored that Gawker blog because I did not want to submit a nasty comment. Go figure! What I continue to say about comments is this: HIRE MODERATORS!
    I do. And they’re a great team of people. We hold conference calls, discuss policy and sometimes we have to make it up as we go along, but we document the policy discuss it further if needed and then we move on.
    We don’t allow name-calling or sweeping generalizations, and no…you’re not going to get away with calling John McCain “McShame” or Barack Obama, Obambi. The goal? Civil discourse and believe it or not, I’ve gotten feedback from people who appreciate the dialogue and the fact that they can engage in decent conversation with us. So don’t quit. Elevate the conversation.

  • Bob,
    Well, I guess that answers that: You don’t see the irony.

  • As in much of life, moderation has served me well.

    Because I post a fair amount of non-flame-retardant material — especially about MSNBC and Fox News — I turned off comments for a while. And then I realized that was stupid and turned them back on, with moderation.

    Now, when commenters tell me I got something wrong, I make a quick fix, usually leaving a strikethrough behind as evidence I screwed up.

    When they tell me I’m a liberal, I OK the comment because I know someone will be along to reply, “Are you f’ing kidding me?”

    And when they launch into a tired tirade about my manhood or the MSM or other refrigerator-magnet word-assembly BS … I just leave it in the queue. Sometimes I even come back and approve the comment.

    Yesterday I edited a comment riddled with all caps and typos, then posted it. I just liked what the poster had to say, even though I would disagreed with it.

    It’s about being taught by your readers. The ones who post comments that are all about them…..let them get their own damn blog.

  • My dad was a school superintendent in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was growing up.

    It was the height of activism in the 60s and the public comment portion of school board meetings were often wild and nearly out of control. I remember a couple of occasions where where things were so tense that the cops were on call.

    I was terrified for my father’s safety, but remember him saying that all feedback has value, even if it comes with great emotion.

    Our social network outreach at Comcast has generated a wide array of feedback, most of it incredibly useful, some pretty vitriolic. But we need to hear it.

    We’re listening and learning, and the information we gather from the web is impacting our thought process as we continue to invest in improving the customer experience.

    For me, it’s had the added benefit of initiating some great relationships that have been rewarding well beyond the answering of a question or solving a cable problem.

    Robert Scoble wrote something the other day that resonated with me.

    “I see a lot of blogs that tear down companies, people, or ideas. I remember when the blogs always just were trying to uplift each other and put interesting ideas forward.”

    Doc is right that Internet discourse is still in its infancy and I’m not sure that the blogisphere was ever as sanguine as Robert remembers.

    But it can be useful medium to help us try to be better human beings.

    Would I prefer that people be civil in their interactions? Absolutely. But I’ll take the input, however it comes.

    All feedback has value, even if it comes with great emotion.

    Scott Westerman
    Vice President
    @ComcastScott on Twitter
    [email protected]

  • Meanwhile in the best practices zone, Kevin Marks reports…

    “The day before, at Web2Open, I had heard something similar in the Troll Whispering session. Christy Canida explained that when someone posts something trollish or otherwise dubious on her site, they get put in a state where only they can see their posts, but no-one else can (except Christy and the other conversation monitors). This damps down the flame responses until Christy and co have time to review, and maybe release them, but in their view the post is on the site, but no-one is responding.”

  • How do you create an environment that allows you to kill 6 million people? First you caricature and dehumanize them.>/i>

    I. Must. Resist.

    Guess he doesn’t see the irony in a lot of things.

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  • There are two problems: 1) A lot of media sites treat their community as if they were still “the audience”. 2) journalists always expect users to contribute some factual value. Wrong: First of all, comments are there to express your opinion – and there is nothing wrong with it.

    There are two simple things that help 1) moderation, i.e. make and communicate clear rules and being transparent about why you throw stuff out. your page is your home. 2) engagement. reporters and editors should learn to talk to their readers/users, not only when they find mistakes. encourage the good people in a thread or via private message, ignore the ones who do not like you anyway.
    That may not be the solution to all the problems, but the basics if you want to take comments seriously. If you don’t, don’t host them.

  • The most popular story at The New York Times right now is Frank Rich’s column here:

    His article has 446 comments so far. For this entry (unlike most), the Times not only allows readers to sort comments chronologically, but also by reader recommendation. More over, editors have a selected a few as their favorites. Doc Searls may be right that these tools are primitive, but I think we’re all better off for having them.

    I can’t see why any publisher would not want the extra eyeballs on their stories. The better the commenting system the more engaged the audience. The more engaged the audience the happier the advertisers. The happier the advertisers the more likely publishers will pay for new stories to which we can contribute.

    Cultivate the garden; don’t plow it under.

  • Tim

    I am a news consumer, and I really want to like the idea of ‘user comments.’

    But I have to ask: how does the comments section improve the quality or efficacy of journalism on a newspaper site? I’ve never read a user comment that brought the story into sharper focus or helped me better understand an issue.

    I’ve always been suspicious that the rush to add comments to a legitimate news site reflects little more than a cheap trick to drive page views and help popularize certain content platforms (WordPress, Blogger, etc.).

    Help me understand this a bit better.


  • Thanks for the link to my post about this, Jeff. It’s funny how much this gets under my skin. So I took it upon myself to try and help. Here are 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments.

  • Bob Garfield

    “…calling (disagreeing readers) every bit as bad as race baiters in Der Sturmer.”

    Jeff, I repeat: Not true. Not fair. I did NOT accuse readers of any such thing, and you know it. Picking up a reference from the Ad Age thread on this (where someone beat me to Godwinville) I said that the AD ITSELF did to effeminate-looking males what Nazi propaganda did to the Jews. Caricatured them. Ridiculed them. Made them objects of violence.

    So, no, Jeff, there is no irony that I can locate…and I locate irony for a living.

    By the way, if you think my concerns are silly, do read about yesterday’s Unitarian church shooting.


  • Bob,

    Then call is the wrong verb. Associated is better. And you still did exactly what a bad online conversation does. You played the nazi card. You may think it makes you more profound but I’d say it only makes you look blunter.

    I really would like to hear that question you asked Ira Glass. Would you put it up, please?



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  • Ira Glass is right on. In news comments, the signal to noise ratio is too low to be worthwhile and moderating comments is a full time job. If your site does not have the resources to moderate full time, or to set up some kind of self-correcting meritocracy system, don’t bother having them.

  • MDM

    “If your site does not have the resources to moderate full time, or to set up some kind of self-correcting meritocracy system, don’t bother having them.”

    Tell youtube. Sometimes the self-correcting system doesn’t work that well, either. To that end, I just finished a project analyzing specific comment threads on youtube:

    Am glad Derek’s pushing this, too, via newspaper sites. The comments on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution site ( are scarily similar (in tone and vehemence) to those I considered on youtube. Solutions abound, but “cultivating the garden” costs time/money.

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  • We’re feeling our way here. And the irony of the meta-discussion, leaving a comment on comments in this particular comment thread, isn’t lost on me. I’ve been whip-sawed by this issue. On a site with multiple authors and multiple commenters, the administrator (a de facto moderator) is exposed to criticism from the blog authors and the commenters for impeding discussion. And he is exposed to criticism from the community at large for not limiting offensive content.

    Some people are offended and sometimes frightened by angry exchanges. Others find any use of the ad hominem totally out of bounds (control freaks, I call them…). Some people need every joke explained (see prior parenthetical ironic instance). Some publications will not, indeed MUST not tolerate rough language. Garfield observes that “news organizations are awash in mean, hateful and occasionally libelous rhetoric that makes us wonder how the free exchange of those particular ideas contributes to the alleged democratized online ideal.”

    Comment threads can turn transgressive and conflict with community standards: the standards of the community of readers and writers within a particular blog circle; and/or, the standards of the community at large. Derek Powazek’s 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments provides a decent framework for managing comment content, minimizing risks from that “mean, hateful and occasionally libelous rhetoric.”

    Paper based “Letters to the Editor” have always been managed at the discretion of the editor. Not everything is published. The pace of discussions in print is stepped down to the frequency of publication. Online, the dynamics are different, the pace is faster, commenters are generally free to publish their own observations. When conversations, discussions, or debates turn ugly online, then some post-hoc editorial control can be exercised. Putting everyone’s comments through the filter of a “community manager” is not my favorite approach, but where positive control is required I can see it as an alternative.

    Moderation can be the answer to over-the-top transgressive behavior, but I agree with you Jeff that it isn’t worthwhile playing whack-a-mole with the entire population of clueless, ugly, and mean commenters.

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  • Say only what you could and would say face-to-face (both content and tone). That’s the rule I live by.

  • hello there, I didn’t know where to contact you but your web design looked rearranged on IE and firefox. Anyways, i just suscribd to your rss.

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  • I’m quite fired up that I found your blog. I’m going to do some more reading through and try to be an productive participator with your various other members. I am fired up to read a lot more.

  • Shane Castane

    I have to say that in 15 years of reading blogs and commentary on the
    internet, this rant by Charles Pierce of Esquire is easily the most
    unbalanced, exaggerated, hysterical rant I’ve ever come across. One might expect a freshman in high school to write a screed like this.
    Certainly not someone who makes a living writing for a publication with
    some eminence like Esquire.

  • liza karen

    Hi Castane.. it’s 6 years befor when Bob Garfield launched a screed in online comments. He resisted because he didn’t want to hoi with the polloi. That’s The point So don’t be messy. Anyways i am a wedding planner perth wa so not know what Garfield respond 6 years before….. but i am sure you will hear smart, well-written things.