Dear Bob,

You caused a lot of discussion in your OtM piece about comments — and that discussion itself — in the comments on WNYC’s blog, in the comments on mine, and in blogs elsewhere — is an object lesson in the value of the conversation online.

Look at who is trying to help you understand that conversation while also trying to improve it:

Derek Powazek agrees with you — as we all do — that some comments are bad and so he shares considerable wisdom about how to give a community the care and feeding it needs and deserves.

Doc Searls, a coauthor of the seminal Cluetrain Manifesto and a teacher from whom I have learned more about the essence of the internet (hint: it’s not a medium) than most anyone, is delivering a history lesson with perspective on the growth of communities. “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,” he said.

ComcastScott (a vice-president, I learn) — whom I suspect you inspired to join the conversation with your own not-very-temperately named — gives an eloquent defense of the value of listening.

Kevin Marks is a preeminent architect of community online; he was the technology genius behind Technorati — which enables the distributed conversation (and where you can follow the conversation around you here) — and is now writing Google’s gospel on the social. On his blog, he took the time to discuss what communities need and how they are structured, sharing the smarts of many other people who a great deal of experience in the field.

Tish Grier, who has been a leader in local communities I’ve been involved with, also tells hosts what they need to bring to assure civility.

Aaron Barnhart – who, like you, covers media — explains how he handles commenters who don’t like him.

The conversation on your blog is really quite incredible with some legitimate questions for Ira Glass.

I know you didn’t like my own observation of irony in your report. Fine, dismiss that as just another damned comment.

But note well, my friend, that all of these people are speaking to you with intelligence, experience, generosity, and civility. You know what’s missing? Two things: First, the sort of nasty comments your own piece decries. And second: You.

Bob, the best way to learn about the conversation online is to join in. That doesn’t mean just defending yourself against my wisecrack (though even in that, I shared links to my experience, perspective, and lessons with communities). It means engaging in the ideas there, bringing your journalism to the conversation: ask questions, ask for examples, challenge ideas, seek clarification. Learn. That’s what these conversations enable and the conversation around your piece is the best proof of it.

So when it’s time to report the reaction to your piece, I suggest that you not just read one comment — that’s so letter-to-the-editorish of you. Instead, leap into this conversation, draw on the generous sharing of knowledge and viewpoints of people in it, take lessons away, and share those.

Your friend,


  • Ira Glass to the co-host of On The Media: “I hear you say this and I feel like you are anti-democratic. You are a royalist. You are upset with democracy itself.” (

    What we should be discussing is whether Glass is right.

  • You could make the case—as I have—that comments are just less formal, less regulated letters to the editor. You seem to downplay that kind of appeal, but LtoE served the same purpose in the past as comments do. And newspapers, who are up in arms over the nastiness of Internet comments, have received the same kinds of letters for years, but thown them in the trash. Why can’t major papers just regulate comments like they do LtoE? That’s not stifling free speech, it’s promoting informed discourse while still keeping things open? Obviously less formal blogs like this and mine would have more tolerant policies.

  • I hope Garfield takes your advice. But the reason I doubt he will goes all the way back to Bill Keller’s complaint that “there’s no end” to blogosphere debate. Jeff, you and Jay and other old-news-world evacuees/refugees (I consider myself one too) have accepted, with reasonable composure, that “leaping into the conversation” means giving up the right to pick that one letter-to-the-editorish comment and to then declare, “the argument is now over.” But for so many newspeople — I suspect Garfield is among them — that right remains too deeply cherished to hand over without a fight. It’s part of the core of the professional identity. Abandoning it is like surrendering to the void — a loss of control that’s unthinkable.

    Yes, Glass is right: his “anti-democratic” charge is brilliant because it challenges another part of the professional identity — the journalist’s self-image as surrogate for “the people.” Whoops — there’s little need for that any more.

  • The issue of “how much” has already been experienced decades ago on the Usenet system. This is the place where terms like “flame wars” and “trolls” originated.

    That history has shown that when a small number of persistent and impolite commentators break the rules of civility the conversation ceases. People get into pointless name calling and become intemperate in their responses themselves.

    This has been handled in one of three ways:
    1. The discussion group becomes unusable and those interested in the original topic leave, what remains is nothing but shouters.
    2. The discussion group gets shifted to a moderated version and then subject to all the arbitrariness of the moderator.
    3. Readers attempt to use some of the specialized Usenet reading software which allows them to filter the comments posted so that they can ignore those that they find a waste of time. If the bad actors are really intent on being annoying this can mean continually tweaking the filters which, itself, becomes a chore.

    Most of the time one finds the most extreme cases of bad behavior on social or political sites, but there are lots of unstable people in the world and I’ve experienced this on sites having to do with film scanners and inkjet printers!

    “On the internet nobody knows you are a dog” needs to be amended to “on the internet nobody knows you are psychotic – until you open your mouth.”

    Good comment filtering software or better web site technology, instead of the common FIFO comment structure could allow comments to be unmoderated and still be navigable by those who don’t want to see every aspect of a discussion.

  • But, Robert Feinman, what the co-host of On the Media is really saying to us is that he has the right not to know to that history, the right to not do any homework before he tackles this subject, the right to present “extremely discouraging” news on comments as if we didn’t have 20+ years of experience with that news, the right to ignore the whole field of best practice in comment sections, and the right to position nameless advocates for digital democracy as zealots who treat any modification of full openness as “heresy,” which is basically a lie. He has the right to do all these things–and he will–because, honestly, who’s going to stop him?

    Ira Glass tried to stop him, or at least stop him in his tracks. How many times have you heard one very established journalist say to another: “you’re being anti-democratic with that view you just expressed?” (It’s a first in my listening life.) Which view is that, causing Glass to take such an unusual rhetorical step? The one the co-host of On the Media edited out!

    Wake up to what Ira Glass is saying. What if he’s right?

  • I actually didn’t think that piece was that bad, or at least not as bad as the traditional, Buzz Bizzinger-like rant.

  • Ethan,
    No, it wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve had this comments discussion a lot over the years and it didn’t advance it past the idea that bad comments spoil the entire stew of the internet and society. That’s tiring.

  • Bob Garfield

    OK, you want irony? Here’s irony. The book I’ve been writing for going on 700 years is all about listening in the new connected, upside-down, individual-empowered Brave New World. So, yeah, “I can see you sitting back and chortling “Physician, heal thyself.”

    Alas, as someone who was raised in the Cowardly Old World, there, I can’t get my head around the fundamental question of whether conduct, and the rules of engagement, should be any different in the blogosphere and commentosphere than they were in the analogosphere.

    I’m talking about fairness, intellectual honesty, decorum and the simple courtesy of carefully consuming the text that you are commenting on. Even you — YOU! — committed the classic sin of mischaracterizing my statement in order to get in a zinger. That is so infuriating.

    The Comcast guy (and I guess there’s even more irony in this) claims all the bile and stupidity just rolls of his back. Maybe he has zeros and ones coursing through his veins. All I have is blood.

    Ever yours,

  • Bob,

    So do us geeks.

    I’m serious: Engage Doc Searls and Kevin Marks in conversation about conversation. This is like chatting with Gutenberg about fonts. You can’t do better.

  • Bob,

    And the same standards so apply. There are streetcorners where drunken assholes hang out in the real world and there are salons where smart people chat. Same here.

  • Jeff: do you know any lamer, more broken-down way of establishing yourself as trustworthy than to quote a nut from the right accusing you of this and another nut from the left accusing you of its opposite, then repeating the process with two additional nuts, before standing gloriously centered on the rock of Big Media balance and pronouncing them both ridiculous cuz we get it from both sides, all day long? Maybe a re-think of that ritual is in order by now, would you say?

  • I suspect an additional challenge for Mr. Garfield and many, many others isn’t just civility but also technology. They don’t want to fight the system to clean up the street corner and build a salon. Commenting technology has a ways to go to foster the kind of communities that will bring out the best from readers and elevate the conversation — without giving authors of all stripes undue technical headaches.

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  • We’ve had hundreds of years of experience in the newspaper industry that have taught us how to take the messy thoughts in a writer’s head and translate them into news. This process involves humans (interviewees, editors, copyeditors) and machines (typewriters, computers, printing presses).

    We’ve had less than 20 years of experience taking the messy thoughts in the heads of readers online and translating them into posts. Is it any wonder we’re still figuring it out?

    And I don’t just mean technology. I mean process, etiquette. Bob keeps ringing the “you didn’t even read it!” bell, but how would he know? Maybe the story didn’t do the job of communicating well enough.

    You have to take a systematic approach. The system of journalism has hundreds of years of experimentation to learn from. Online, we’ve got about a dozen. We’ve made some progress – and Bob’s story would have been better had he included it – but there’s a long road ahead still.

    We’ll figure it out. And conversations like this are part of that process.

  • I just want to put in a plea for technology again, after all this is one of Jeff’s principle themes – new technology is liberating the public and letting it participate in new ways.

    So, perhaps, Jeff can poke around while he schmoozes with industry insiders and find out why there is so little innovation in how interactive web sites are structured.

    Even the most elementary features like nested replies and the ability to fold them up by the viewer are typically lacking. A “what would like to see in future blogging software” discussion might prove instructive.

    Someone with a nice package should be able to set up a workable business to compete with wordpress or blogger or whomever.

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  • Here here. Drunken idiots in real world. And in cyberspace. Just that they have a megaphone that reaches more people. But discourse, I have observed, will out. Idiots — or even the intolerant — won’t understand, anyway. Civil discourse is nice, but not something that’s easily (or desire-ably) enforced.

    And Jay Rosen beat me to it: I was going to title my Off the Media post: Bob Garfeild, Anti-Democrat, then quote from Ira Glass.

  • So let’s see … Ira Glass offered a perfect example of what’s wrong with comments — a truly ugly anecdote about an incident that unfolded on the “This American Life” site. Then he covered his ass by saying that anyone who’s against comments is anti-democratic. I don’t blame him for wanting to have it both ways. But I’m not sure why he’s being praised for it.

    There are places where comments are a plus. This is one of them. Jay’s blog is another. But there are problems, to say the least. I just started requiring registration this week when a few anonymous posters took unseemly delight in Robert Novak’s medical problems.

    I guess you could say I was being irresponsible before and now I’m being responsible. I don’t know. I do know I thought Garfield’s piece was an excellent, comprehensive survey of the good and bad of comments, and I will ask my students to listen to it.

  • “Then he covered his ass by saying that anyone who’s against comments is anti-democratic.”

    Dan: No. Glass didn’t say anything like that. He said the co-host of On the Media was being anti-democratic in the view put forward by that “leading” question said host asked Glass. Which leading question was that? The one the co-host won’t let us listen to. Which apparently is just fine with everyone here.

    So the OTM piece was a “comprehensive” survey of what’s known about the problem of angry commenters, huh? What a remarkable statement.

  • While blogging at Lost Remote, many was the time the comments got to me. Anyone who says the nasty comments roll off their back is lying. At various times, I’d tell Cory Bergman we needed registration to get rid of the nuts. To his credit, Cory always let me cool down.

    But this nagged at me. So when I left LR and started MediaReinvent, I decided to see what would happen if I required registration.

    Nobody’s commenting. I had two in April. Since then – nothing.

    And I miss them. Even the nuts. I learned so much from the LR Faithful that I came to rely on feedback before I could write my next column. Now I feel like I’m blogging in the dark. It’s because of this very debate that I’m ending this little experiment and turning off the registration requirement. I can only hope that I haven’t alienated too many people, and that I’ll hear from them – the thoughtful ones, the insightful ones, and the kooks – once again.

  • Jay: Three pieces totaling nearly 20 minutes on a national radio show, taking in several different points of view. That’s not comprehensive? It’s not a book, but it’s a lot. And well done.

    Garfield characterized his question. I imagine if he posted the exact words, we would be utterly unsurprised.

  • One doesn’t measure comprehensiveness with a clock or a ruler. Longer is not deeper.

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  • Jeff: Which is why I mentioned the several different points of view. Besides, even if length doesn’t ensure depth, it is a necessary precondition.

  • Still disagree, Dan. I learned long ago in my career that shorter is harder. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I decreed that long reviews usually waste readers’ time with critics showing off. Shorter can be smarter.

  • Jeff: Then why did you complain in the OTM comments that you couldn’t post a lengthy response? Heh, heh.

  • Three pieces totaling nearly 20 minutes on a national radio show, taking in several different points of view. That’s not comprehensive?

    No. It isn’t. Nothing that has happened to the news industry in its experience with comments is any different from the experiences of other groups who joined the Net and found the same things happening in their forums over the years. Ask some of the people in this thread what percentage of the news industry’s problems were predictable before the first newspaper comment board even went online.

    A comprehensive look would acknowledge that and visit what is known from that history. We don’t have “the” answer. But we do know some things. A survey treatment of a problem in practice that does not include best practices for handling the problem is not comprehensive at all– not by my lights.

    What you meant, I am guessing, is that looking at the range of argumentative positions on comments, they were all there. People who are ready to give up, people who are determined to keep them, people who have grave doubts.

  • What you’re suggesting, Jay, is that Garfield should have done a piece other than the one that he did. But the one he did was rather good, in my view. A solutions piece aimed at media professionals would have been rather insidery, don’t you think?

    I’ve been involved since the Usenet wars of the early ’90s. I haven’t seen any solutions. There are things that work better than others. Care and feeding, with attention by the host, all make a big difference, but that’s awfully hard to do on a big news site with overworked reporters not necessarily able to pay much attention to comments to their own stories.

    I’ve found that comments to my commentaries for the Guardian tend to be absolutely nuts. Yet, for the most part, comments on my blog are quite civilized and interesting, even aside from the fact that I felt the need to start requiring registration. The difference between institutional and personal would be my guess.

    Derek Powazek wrote a terrific response on “10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments” in the OTM comments. In case you haven’t seen it:

  • Dan,

    But the piece does not get beyond the old and obvious saws and comments. It breaks no new ground.

  • Steve Safran: Remember, accounts are just one kind of barrier to entry. And barriers are movable. For a new site, it makes sense to start with a low barrier and raise it over time.

  • What you’re suggesting, Jay, is that Garfield should have done a piece other than the one that he did

    Nope. I am suggesting you should not have used the term “comprehensive survey” for a piece that isn’t. In fact it was influenced by the anti-democratic animus of the host, which at one point became so extreme that Ira Glass had to remark on it. A most unusual event.

    And I don’t agree with you that while the OnTheMedia listenership is capable of grasping the problem of angry commenters and of hearing the host’s frustrations, a solid look at best practices for handling the problem is too “insidery,” and “another piece” and beyond that same audience’s patience. I don’t agree with any of that.

  • So, Jay and Jeff … link to a truly well-done piece that appeared in a reasonably traditional outlet, aimed at a non-insider audience, that does what you think Garfield should have done. Bonus points if neither one of you is quoted in it!

  • I’m not interested in the rules of your contest specifying what a valid point of comparison is. Don’t call it a comprehensive survey of the subject when it’s not. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. Call it a view of the angry comment problem from OnTheMedia. That’s what it is.

    A view. Which in my interpretation is informed by an anti-democratic spirit that Ira Glass had to call out. The host saw himself as reality checking an “alleged democratized online ideal.” (A quote from the show.) That’s the vanquished. That’s the quarry. That’s what our host thinks he’s arguing with. This “alleged ideal” (are ideals really “alleged?”…) is what his report ultimately wants to dislodge. He’s the purveyor of “heresies” to the crowd of deluded Internet believers.

    They’re a construction; in a fact a necessary fiction in the piece. None are named, none are heard from. The alleged ideal isn’t actually described’ it’s just there be debunked, but we can surmise that it’s something like, “COMMENTS RULE, SO DON’T F*CK WITH OUR COMMEMNTS, MAN” which is the religion, the “alleged” power, to which On the Media speaks truth.

    Among the people who have hard won knowledge about how comments systems actually work and break down, you won’t find many who are starry-eyed idealists unfamiliar with the lower reaches of human nature and preaching a rigid doctrine of openness. Practical experience has taught them otherwise. It was precisely this more moderate and practical view that the show avoided by declining to ask what best practice was. The piece is ideological. Ira Glass identified what they ideology of it was.

    I’m not one of the people who have carefully studied comment systems, Dan, except my own. I have zero presence in the literature to which Derek Powazek contributes so ably. Never written an article or post about comments. I’m an interested lay person with my own experiences.

  • I called Garfield’s piece a “comprehensive survey of the good and bad of comments.” I stand by that. The second part of the phrase is as important as the first.

  • Excellent. You stick with “comprehensive survey of the good and bad of comments” as a good solid headline for the OnTheMedia piece, and I will go with “anti-democratic animus shines through; ask Ira Glass.” We agree: worth using in classes; definitely something for students to learn from. “You are a royalist” in particular would be an excellent jumping off point.

  • And was Glass being anti-democratic, a royalist, or both when he banned comments from his site? You’re right, Garfield should post his question. I’d like to see if Glass was reacting negatively to actions he himself had taken.

  • How fortunate is that? We agree that he should post the audio of his question.

    Post it. It’s not a hard thing to do. Instead of paraphrasing it and letting Ira Glass dangle in conversational space with lines like, “when you say that I feel like…”

    You may be right, Dan. Maybe Ira Glass flew off the handle and started playing the “royalist” card with a man who was simply asking a logical question. Perhaps Ira did this to deflect from his own history of suppressing comments. Entirely possible.

    Other speculations arise. But all we can say is we don’t know what provoked Ira Glass to call a fellow journalist anti-democratic. We’d like to know. I’d love to hear the whole interview with Garfield and Glass. Tell me how OnTheMedia loses by providing it.

  • I’m sitting here at work listening to this week’s This American Life, and what is the subject of the first act? Internet commenters. If only there was a place on their site to comment [insert winky emoticon].

    What Part of “Bomb” Don’t You Understand?

  • Bob Garfield

    jeff, et al,
    i hesitated to do this, because i have SO enjoyed watching jay rosen imagine that my paraphrased question to ira glass was the equivalent of the gap in the nixon tapes.

    it probably never occurred to the professor, because he has near zero experience in on the factory floor, that there could be a mundane explanation:

    in the original question, i used a reference to “lord of the flies,” by the time we put the package together, i had already used the same reference in the lee siegal interview. so i paraphrased to omit the redundancy.

    jay rosen has a ever-expanding history (now three episodes) of imputing sinister motives to ordinary production decisions when the result is a story that a) doesn’t utterly conform to his worldview, b) isn’t the one HE would have done. i have a lot of respect for academia, but i’m pretty sure that the qualifications for scholarship do not necessarily overlap with understanding the nuts and bolts of producing journalism. alas, inexperience and paranoia are a dangerous combination.

    for instance, while rosen bizarrely and incorrectly assumes i have paraphrased a question to somehow protect myself, did he not notice that i left intact and unrefuted the charge that i am a ROYALIST? and did not one single thing to soften the blow? did it occur to rosen that, up to a point i agree with ira glass, or at least understand his argument? that the relationship between journalism and the audience is a complex one, and that the dynamics are changing — perhaps most especially the physician-patient one that still makes a lot of sense to me?

    no, it did not occur to him. because rosen has lost the ability, if he ever had it, to filter out his own scorn.

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