Washington Post Blog Shuts Off Comments
The Washington Post shut down comments on their blog yesterday [The Post has a blog? -ed. Apparently.] after the shocking discovery that many people on the Internet are less than civil:
As of 4:15 p.m. ET today, we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely.
At its inception, the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues. Among the things that we knew would be part of that discussion would be the news and opinion coming from the pages of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. We knew a lot of that discussion would be critical in nature. And we were fine with that. Great journalism companies need feedback from readers to stay sharp.
But there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we’ve decided not to allow comments for the time being. It’s a shame that it’s come to this. Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it’s a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about.
We’re not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it. Any thoughtful feedback on that (or any other issue) is welcome, and you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Not surprisingly, they were flooded with emails and posted a lengthy response at 7 p.m., noting that they are in fact engaged in very open dialogue, including starting bunches of blogs and even linking to some blogs not owned by the Washington Post company! Also,
The reason that people were not routinely seeing the problematic posts I mentioned were that we were trying to remove them as fast as we could in order to preserve the reasoned arguments many others were making. We removed hundreds of these posts over the past few days, and it was becoming a significant burden on us to try and keep the comments area free of profanity and name-calling. So we eventually chose to turn off comments until we can come up with a better way to handle situations like this, where we have a significant amount of people who refuse to abide by the rules we set out.
Matt Stoler has a parody of this post explaining why he has turned off comments at MyDD.
As I have often noted in the past, blog comments sections get proportionally less civil as the number of comments and/or the popularity of the site grows. Even leaving aside bulletin board sites like Free Republic or Democratic Underground, almost all of the high traffic sites that still have comments long ago degenerated into the equivalent of Usenet. Take a look around at DailyKos or Little Green Footballs, for example. This is even on sites where the site authors themselves maintain a civil tone. See Political Animal, for example. Quite a few of the high profile sites long ago did away with comments altogether.
The only sites that I’ve seen escape this trend are those who attract mostly a specialized audience. Crooked Timber and, more recently, The Volokh Conspiracy are examples. By focusing on pure analysis, often of non-controversial topics, they have managed to maintain a much higher tone in their comments.
Spam filters, comments registration, moderation queues and other technical means can help police comments but, as WaPo’s editors discovered, that’s a lot of work. The bottom line, I think, is that a blog either has comments–which may well degenerate into crap–or it doesn’t.
As an aside, I should note that it is not just Right-leaning types that prefer order in their comment sections. Kevin Drum lamented the sad state of his own comment section in September 2003 and Noam Chomsky closed the comment section on his blog within the first day.
Update: Executive Editor Jim Brady had an online discussion on this topic today at noon.
Cache Valley, Utah: if ya can’t stand the heat…
Publish partisan lies and not expect a backlash? Get real pal!!!
Fire that f***ing b**** forthwith and all’s well that ends well, no? Otherwise, batten down the hatches, pal, ’cause there’s a storm a brewin’ and it’s gonna be nasty.
Jim Brady: Afternoon, thanks for all your questions (well, maybe not this one). But I wanted to start with it to make a point that this was the kind of stuff we spent all week cleaning out of our message boards (except there were no asterisks). And when the amount of time it took to ferret these kind of posts out exceeded the bandwidth we could devote to it, we decided to close commenting on post.blog down. Now, on to some intelligent questions, of which there were many.
Heh. And most of the rest of the discussion is, indeed, more intelligent.
NYT’s Katharine Seelye points out that,
The closing was the second time in recent months that a major newspaper has stopped accepting feedback from readers in a Web forum. An experiment in allowing the public to edit editorials in The Los Angeles Times lasted just two days in June before it was shut because pornographic material was being posted on the site.
Yep. What’s amazing is that thousands of amateurs, running blogs in their spare time, somehow manage to handle what full-time professional journalists seemingly can not.
Update (1/21) Glenn Reynolds, who maintains an incredibly successful comment-free blog, observes, “It’s hard for me to get very exercised about this. Given the Post’s addition of technorati links to many of their stories, they’re in a better position than most to say ‘the blogosphere is our comment section.’ And, you know, it is.”
Jim Romanesko believes this is par for the course:
The Internet is global, folks! You can’t ask for civility. You can’t expect it. If you have an open forum, you’ll get “goatse” (don’t ask if you don’t know what that is). If you have a forum that requires registration via email, people will create fake addresses at Yahoo or Gmail to post vandalism or vitriol. If you require more severe forms of proof of identity, you restrict the amount of participation.
There’s no way to ensure a civil forum without moderation, and that moderation will always be second-guessed, whether it’s collaborative like Slashdot or an iron fist of a company employee making arbitrary or non-arbitrary judgements.
There is no way to ask for civility on the Internet while maintaining the
Both are quite right. The old adage, “My house, my rules” applies, of course. Proprietors of Web sites are free to delete comments, ban commenters, or do away with comments altogether. Those irritated at the removal of their grafitti wall will exercise their freedom to bitch about it elsewhere.
Update (1/23): Catching up on my RSS feeds, I see that Michael J. Totten closed off his comments the same day that the Post did. For essentially the same reasons.
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