In a recent comment on the “Mayor Intends to Serve Out Term” post, Julie Bixby said, “I have spoken with several people who read locally grown and would love to comment but are afraid of the consequences. . ..” Private comments from other people (offline) have expressed similar sentiments.
We’re not alone in this dilemma. In a recent online editorial, “Civil Discourse, Meet the Internet“, the New York Times said,
How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse, bullying and misinformed ways?
I couldn’t have phrased the question better myself. This is something the triumvirate has batted around extensively, with one advocating totally free, unmoderated speech; one advocating stronger moderation for “tone”; and one advocating extensive IQ and EQ tests before approving user IDs for participation. (BONUS POINTS: Guess which opinion belongs to which member of the triumvirate.)
Well, we’re not in a position to do what the NY Times did, but they started addressing the issue by hiring four staff people to screen comments.
“I didn’t know how big it would become, and I didn’t know how tough it would be to manage,” said Jim Roberts, editor of the Web site. A particularly hot topic on a blog can generate more than 500 comments. . .
So, get this – our volume of comments on Locally Grown can easily get to 30%-50% of the volume experience by THE NEW YORK TIMES. I’m loving that. But we don’t have four staff people to deal with it, either.
This is a complex issue, with many ramifications. We’re trying to build a virtual space which allows people the freedom to express their opinions to their neighbors. . . in a thoughtful, respectful manner. In my opinion, that’s not what we’re getting (although the recent discussion on Sex With Seven Women comes close to what I personally consider to be the ideal balance: direct and honest exchange of ideas and opinions while maintaining a [mostly] civil tone). But everyone draws the line of what’s acceptable in a different place.
So, what are some potential solutions, or strategies to elevate the dialog? A plea for more self-policing of adherence to our guidelines? Siccing the greater LG community on code violaters, i.e. requesting that participants cry “foul” when they think a commenter has crossed the line? Do more heavy-handed moderating? It must be said that several members of the LG community are much more frustrated by comments they perceive as ignorant or uninformed than those they think are “mean”. But we also know that many participants (and lurkers) are unhappy with the overall level of discourse and the ad hominen remarks which occur with distressing frequency.
What to do? (I’m especially interested in hearing from the lurkers.)