Why Are Comment Threads Full of Sociopathic Drivel, and What Can We Do About It?

Scroll to the bottom of this page and leave a comment. Once you submit it, what you write will remain on the site forever—unless we decide that it goes too far beyond the bounds of acceptable speech. But what does … Read More

By / May 29, 2007

Scroll to the bottom of this page and leave a comment. Once you submit it, what you write will remain on the site foreverunless we decide that it goes too far beyond the bounds of acceptable speech.

But what does “too far” mean? How can an online community close the gates to nutjobs without also excluding good contributors? Jewcy editors Michael Weiss and Joey Kurtzman struggled with these issues over Skype as they tried to hash out a comments policy. Watch how the sausages get made, and then leave us your thoughts below.

Joey: If there's one thing that's turned Jewcers off to traditional Jewish media, it's that the boundaries of acceptable discussion are too narrow. We want to get ideas we agree with as well as ones we strongly disagree with, to create great, stimulating clashes of ideas in the comment threads.

So along comes the Bomb Iran dialogue, which gets great traffic, and tons of comments. Unfortunately, many of the comments are repetitive, and start to grate on regular visitors to the site. A nice long piss in their milk. So what do we do about this? How do we balance desire for a fractious polylogue with desire to have the Jewcy community be inhabitable?

Michael: For the most part, I think that's happened. See the "Why Are Atheists So Angry?" dialogue, your debate with Derbyshire, and even some sections of the "Bomb Iran?" exchange. However, my grievance is with comments that don't just refuse to confront the issue at hand, but are nasty-minded, stupid and desultory. We shouldn't hesitate to ban anonymous commenters—with traceable IP addresses—who continue to infest the site with their toxic presence. Nor should turning off threads be verboten. Every major blog does this. I would add to that that in more cases than not, wicked little agendas can be sniffed out easily.

Joey: I think that's the place to start. We don't want to censor opinions, to the extent we can help it, but small-minded nastiness gets us nowhere. Wikipedia has a "No Personal Attacks" policy, and that kind of content-free invective gets reverted quickly.

Michael: There’s a comment on Francois's Shvitz post about Bernard Kouchner becoming foreign minister of France that reads: "Are you saying it's a coincidence that the first Jewish President of France selects a Jewish Foreign Minister, a neo-con who supported the Iraq war? The Zionists have been gunning for France because of its supposed tilt towards the Palestinians. Now we know which way the wind is going to blow.” That's antisemitic, plain and simple. It adds absolutely nothing interesting or insightful to Francois's point, and is wrong on a point of fact: Kouchner opposed the war in Iraq.

None of us wants to mislead people as to a major social activist/politico's position. So what to do? Do we post a disclaimer correcting this comment, delete it entirely, or what?

Joey: We have to hope errors and misrepresentations will be outed in the marketplace for ideas. The problem is malice. And cutting off comments altogether is too heavy-handed a way of dealing with malice.

Michael: Here's how I view user comments: they're letters to the editor, which have always been vetted by old media, and for good reason. No one who scribbles an illiterate and erroneous screed gets to eat up print space in the New Yorker, the Times, or the Washington Post. Why should they eat up bandwidth, too?

Joey: You're working from old paradigms that are no longer applicable, Michael. These are not letters to the editor; they’re additions to a conversation taking place among a user community.

Michael: The Internet is not really a marketplace of ideas. That's the democratic myth, but it just hasn't borne itself out. 99% of blogs and online magazine comments sections are dominated by narcissists and nameless taunters. Anonymity scuttles the whole notion of an exchange of meaningful ideas: who wouldn't want to have his identity attached to a sound intellectual contribution?

Joey: Yes, and this is a problem. The blogs you describe are precisely the sort of place that destroy the marketplace by excluding forbidden thoughts. That's the essence of ideological narcissism—concluding that opinions that you find disagreeable are not just wrong, but unworthy of being discussed or understood. That kind of thing prevents the internet from achieving its potential to bring together ideas that are normally kept apart by social realities of meatspace.

Michael: Really? Harry's Place entertains all sorts of whack-jobs—Stoppers, Islamists, Trots—and only ends a thread when it's got completely unruly, or better yet, a pissing contest between two egos.

Joey: What is "unruly"? Non-linear? Too many subconversations at once?

Michael: Too many subconversations might be a good flag, sure. Or, as you pointed out earlier, endless repetition, particularly of what most reasonable people would agree is just propaganda or the output of a diseased mind. Such as our friend "Ahmadinejad," the anonymous guy who quotes long suras from the Koran in response to whatever upsets him.

Look, I'm not calling for a fatwah on debate. I'm a Voltairean on speech.

Joey: So am I. Sunlight as the best disinfectant, et cetera et cetera. By subjecting ideas to debate and analysis and lots of snarky eyes, you get a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses, which never happens so long as they're restricted to the insular ideological spaces you were talking about.

Michael: By the way, I should state for the record that I'm completely against the so-called "civility code" for governing cyberspace. My arguments apply only to the editorial policy of a privately owned online magazine. I have no truck with some across-the-board (and, frankly, unenforceable) regulation of speech on the internet.

Joey: Well, take the anonymous commenter we’ve been calling “Ahmadinejad.” He’s a perfect example of someone who would get kicked to the curb as a troll. But actually, the guy is trying hard to make an argument against Zionism that’s fairly influential in the Muslim world. He’s arguing that the Bible has been falsified, that Ishmael is the true heir to Abraham, and thus God’s promises to Abraham of the Promised Land actually fall to Ishmael, negating the Jews’ Biblical claim to Israel.

Most Jewcy readers will be unpersuaded by this, since most don't regard the Bible as a land deed in any case. But anyone who is interested in how the conflict is viewed in the Muslim world should be aware of these sorts of ideas. And yet because of the length of the post, and how bizarre it feels, this is the sort of post that would get deleted as trolling.

Michael: But he's not making an argument, is he? He's just regurgitating scripture. I could paste what I thought were vaguely germane quotations from biology textbooks to counter, say, Klinghoffer's orthodoxy, but would anyone call that "advancing the conversation"?

Joey: And that's what we need to work out: what sort of guidelines will keep the space habitable while still getting an "unruly" (it's no pejorative to me), polyglot, ideologically diverse debate. I think basically we've both agreed that an unconstrained conversation has advantages and disadvantages. We both dislike malice and repetitive gibberish and egos run amok.

We could exclude the "riffraff" and untermenschen altogether by going the Gawker route, and issuing invitations to join the elite Jewcy social club, where commenters have been vetted prior to admission. But a first and more reasonable step is reducing malice, rather than riffraff.

Michael: No, I think that's needlessly elitist. Why don't we start by saying that egregious personal insults will be removed? If an otherwise worthwhile comment includes a personal attack, we'll replace the attack with a note in italics and brackets saying that a PA has been removed.

Another route is Slate's: Award "Editor's Pick" plaudits to particularly insightful comments. I think we might even have fun with it: Hand out "Please shut up, you're boring" awards to annoying but harmless commenters.

Joey: Well, as in real world, legislation usually doesn't reliably solve the problems it tries to address, but does reliably cause fucked up and unwanted consequences. Incentives work better than rules, and I think the "editor's pick" is a pretty non-interventionist way of producing more good comments. If an otherwise worthwhile comment includes a personal attack, we'll replace the attack with a note in italics and brackets saying that a PA has been removed. Instituting a "no personal attacks" policy shouldn't diminish the range of opinions we get represented on the site. It makes demands on tone only, and not perspective.

Michael: So a disclaimer: “Be civilized or else,” and prizes for IQ and eloquence. Sounds like a plan to me.

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