Can Web 2.0 Survive the Cancer of Comment Trolls?

I can hear the complaints already: If you read one more geeky media type going on about how Web 2.0 is helping transform the news from a lecture into a conversation, you’ll fire off an angry e-mail or toxic, troll-worthy comment accusing me of trafficking in trendy new media cliches.

If you do, then I thank you for helping to illustrate the point of today’s column. Comments on journalism, media and political news Web sites from readers or news viewers are indeed allowing for instant, richer feedback. I type it here, it comes out there, to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies about journalism, “Broadcast News.” Allow readers to chime in, and they help you do your job as a reporter by fleshing out everything from follow-ups to new story leads to analysis.

But there are more than a few thought leaders in the journalism and Web professions who are worried that in a divided America, the conversation is becoming a tad heated, and anonymous hate is threatening to ruin the party for everybody.

Consider these examples:

  • This week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, at a panel sponsored by the popular Huffington Post on Internet coverage of this year’s campaigns, MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson said he thought anonymous name-calling comments on political blogs were “hurting America.” And yes, he was purposely using the same words that “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart used against Carlson in 2004 while appearing on CNN’s late, unlamented “Crossfire” (which Carlson used to co-host) where he criticized the angry discourse on that very show.
  • Earlier this year, at a Digital Hollywood conference, Washington Post online division head Jim Brady recounted the outcry from users in 2006 after that paper’s ombudsman admitted to an error. Readers angry about perceived bias sent such nasty missives that Brady shut down all comments, but the users simply took their cyber-shouting to other blogs where they accused Brady of censorship. He told the panelists that “people aren’t accountable on the Web,” and he feared that many potential, rational commenters are scared off by trolls for fear of “being bashed in the head by the Internet equivalent of a lead pipe.”
  • Then there’s the case of technology blogger Kathy Sierra, who last year tried to make a case for a blogger’s code of conduct after she received anonymous death threats.

How to Give Good Comment

Back in the Good Old Days of newspapers, many letters to the editors wouldn’t get printed unless they had names and addresses attached to them; a low-tech solution in a simpler time. Now, people like Brady and Huffington think that coming advances in software to help identify, verify or moderate comments may be the only way to clean up commenters’ acts. Blogs could also post IP addresses, which might be considered a nuclear option for the privacy-minded.

Many argue that the wisdom of crowds (I know, strike two in the Trendy New Media Cliche sweepstakes), or a site moderator, can handle those who get out of line with their posted thoughts. Tech Web site Slashdot allows for public moderation; trolls get ranked right off the page.

There is, of course, a very old-school way to deal with nasty commenters: Ignore them, just like your mother told you to.

Newspaper reporter Monica Guzman subscribes to that approach. “A lot of people think the way to fight the trolls is to tell them what idiots they are. That’s not the way. If somebody chooses to be an idiot, you’re not going to teach them anything.”

Guzman, online reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and contributor to its “Big Blog,” is actually trying to instruct her readers on how they should interact with news blogs and Web sites. At February’s Ignite Seattle event — a self-described geekfest — Guzman’s hip, fast and funny Powerpoint presentation, “How to be an Awesome Commenter” was a hit with the audience. You can see it on YouTube.

A few key bullet points:

  • Choose the story to comment on wisely for impact;
  • “Tell us what you think, what you know, what you’ve lived;”
  • Ask questions, and sign your name: “You really should own your story.”

And did we mention … ignore trolls?

“There’s something really cool in the accountability we’re now all faced with,” Guzman told me about the impact of Web 2.0 on journalism. “Blogging is a much more honest form of news. It reveals news as a process rather than a product. I’ve learned that having that much more feedback makes me more responsible to what my readers want. It makes it more their blog than mine, and it’s a good thing for journalism in that respect as well.

“If the conversation sucks, it’s not going to do the news any good.”

A Comment on Generational Change

Guzman is a young reporter who has come of age in the Digital Age and is using its new storytelling tools — including Twitter and comments from her readers — to help her news-gathering. She may be living and working in a techno-savvy city, but she also knows that some older reporters in Seattle and elsewhere aren’t as open-minded to Web 2.0 and public comments from their readers.

“Now it’s here and we’re running scared, a lot of us. But there are so many good things in it. The attitude that a lot of newspapers have is to put up a comment board as an afterthought. I think the healthy approach is to make people aware of the power they wield and hope that helps them to be more responsible. Try to strip emotion and anger away and try to make reasoned arguments, to remind people this is an opportunity and not just a dump for reactionary comments.”

In Guzman’s mind, any comment-vetting method that gets in the way of full feedback should be a last resort. “I know that just making people register and have a user name doesn’t help,” she said. “Some of our most vicious commenters have user names. But as far as identifying themselves 100 percent? If somebody figures out a way to do it, that’s awesome, but if you do that, you’re going to have to staff for that process, and it’s going to slow it down. It might be an hour or two before that comment goes up, and that’s just unnatural for the Internet.”

Too many newspapers and other media organizations still view the Web as an unnatural outlet for their talents. Guzman’s presentation should be required viewing — not just for news consumers, but for those who produce it.

Here’s an unsolicited but friendly comment for all media: Encourage the comments, and find ways to winnow out the coal to get at the diamonds of public insight that truly help democratize the news-gathering process.

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