The whole Max Gogarty juggernaut rolls on, and it’s mostly the Guardian and its stablemates doing the driving. There’s this hand-wringing piece by Rafael Behr which compares it to the Cultural Revolution and fails to even consider the possibility the Guardian might have made a mistake, and a heavily biased article in The Observer, both of which fail to see the bigger picture, namely that a newspaper thought they could get away with something that went against the principles of their readership, and got caught out. Instead, the spin is one of mob rule, “hate mail” and bullying and the like.
Still, this is a recognised problem on the internet and I’m going to clarify the “UGC is better than mainstream media” tone in my last post before someone misinterprets it – not every comment on any of these pieces is a burning white-hot nugget of UGC gold, superior to anything a mainstream media outlet could ever do. A lot of the comments are fairly trite and some downright abusive. There is going to be for any comments section of any site or blog, and as doctorvee summed up in a good post last week:
Look in the comments section on any major website, and you will find loons aplenty. I used to be a big advocate of letting people comment on MSM news articles. I thought the BBC?s terrible Have Your Say was just a one-off accident due to the fact that it was among the first major attempts at allowing comments on MSM websites. Now that comments are commonplace, it is clear that it was a mistake to believe that it would enhance accountability or improve debate.
Loon commenting is such a commonplace phenomenon (obligatory link to Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and XKCD on YouTube comments) that there are whole blogs devoted to it. But there are usually, if not always, lovely tasty grains of wheat amongst the chaff. It’s just that the system’s broken and we often can’t find them. So how to go about fixing it? Duncan says:
But that needn?t mean there should be no discussion about their stories. In its place they could ? and should ? have a system like pingbacks or a Technorati widget so that readers can see what bloggers have to say about the story. The standard of debate would surely rise.
I disagree. Blogs aren’t the only way to go about commenting on the web, Technorati is a pain in the arse to use anyway, and it’s possible to be an insightful and intelligent commenter without having the technological savvy, time or energy to have a blog. But how do we encourage better interactivity with the mainstream media without every Tom, Dick or Adolf swamping the system with idiocy.
Part of the problem is the limited definition of what “interactivity” means to MSM people. Allowing people to just “Have Your Say” (a phrase which should be not just banned but buried under a mile of concrete in my view, not least as it implicitly disregards the need to think first) is not what Web 2.0 or interactivity is about; for a community site to be interactive in a smart way it has to give users the chance to control content as well as contribute.
So what’s the answer? Sites like Digg or YouTube employ point systems to promote the best comments, and on the face of it, it has appeal. At the same time, filtering or ordering comments by how well-approved they are destroys the ability to view conversations as a thread – a good reply to an idiotic comment suddenly loses all useful context. As a result, most of these systems still keep to a semi-threaded system and set a very low barrier for entry – which is why it fails miserably on both sites.
Casting an eye over the comments sections of national newspapers, and this idea hasn’t been taken on very much. The Guardian’s Comment Is Free has no such system to rate others’ contributions, but does have a “Offensive? Unsuitable? Email us” link in red after every single post. That’s hardly encouraging an environment of considered debate, or promoting positive and constructive thinking, is it?
Here’s an idea: Do we really need to have comments as a thread, or even have them ordered in time? After all, such an architecture encourages a hothouse, an environment of one-upmanship, reactionary thinking, getting personal and taking things to a ridiculous conclusion. Going to a more blog-like format, instead of the forum format we have now, with each comment standalone and not threaded or ordered in time would discourage this. It would mean they focus on the matter at hand, rather than getting personal, making it more like the format of a traditional debate (instead of an episode of Jeremy Kyle). Ordering it by rating or vote means that (we’d hope) the better and more insightful comments get promoted.
Then again – there are flaws and I acknowledge that not for the first time in my life, I may have too much faith in human nature. While I’m hoping hope the better ones get promoted, while the pointless, vague or plain idiotic ones would not (partly because they are less well-written, but also because there usually being more of them, the votes would be split), that may be just wishful thinking on my part. This Facebook group of dickheaded cuntery is 50,000 members strong, for example – all of them clicking an “I like this!” button on an equally moronic post would be awful. All internet voting systems like this can be gamed, and there is the possibility (maybe inevitability?) of cliques being formed. As well as, of course, the risk of people deliberately clicking a terrible post not because they agree with it but because it’s hilariously idiotic.
Still, I’m only speculating, and it’s very much a case that someone needs to actually do it, and do it properly for us to find out how good it would be. It would be a welcome sight to see on MSM websites, removing threads entirely and making it less confrontational. It also has benefits for the site owners – getting the community to partially self-police itself can take the workload off moderators, and the best content can be promoted to site level and adds value there. It’s worth a shot, surely?
What do you think? Why not “have your say” in the comments below? Oh God, I can’t believe I just said that. Right, flame away.
Update Thanks to John in the comments, who points out the BBC employ such a system, although it is not the default view – stupidly, I only surveyed newspaper sites before writing this blog post. It is interesting – as John said, it does get rid of the worst, albeit to varying degrees. On some topics it works quite well on and others it doesn’t (e.g. this). It does run the risk of making some debates look very one-sided. It would also be interesting to see the number of recommendations per user – they are unlimited, something I’m uneasy with – it makes it far too easy for one person with the time to flag up everything they like. A restriction on the number of recommendations allowed a day perhaps would be a good idea.