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INTERNET COMMENTS:

Once everyone has a voice, what can you do to stop hearing all but the ones who agree with you? After all, not everyone has something constructive, informed or agreeable to say on all matters (such being the cause of most bullshitting), and things now are often put in writing that otherwise may have been said in passing, dismissed or forgotten. There have been numerous papers and articles already discussing why all this is hurting our ability to concentrate and our ability to be social and thoughtful people, but there has yet to be a good proposal for how to address the “bottom half of the internet” in terms of making reviews, ratings and comments be more representative of real, helpful human feedback rather than the wild west of integrity it continues to be.

There is a ‘ceaseless profusion of data’ and an abundance of ways to stay ‘connected’ without really seeing or speaking to one another, so how do we all really make ourselves heard and how do we use this technology to improve access to quality information, corporate transparency and political honesty while minimizing spam and trolling?

SEO & THE NEWSROOM:

Many blogs allow a user’s name in a comment to link to any site that user chooses, making thoughtless comments more common for the sake of gaining a link from that website (is not a good SEO tactic unless your comment furthers the conversation in some way, obviously). If you have the time and resources you can moderate your site’s comments, but there will always be middle-of-the road comments that aren’t necessarily spam but definitely don’t elevate the conversation. Many talented bloggers such as Matt Gemmell have explained many times their reasoning for not allowing comments: essentially, that the reader is there because of the site’s author(s) – not some anonymous Joe Shmoe who landed on the article, thought for 5 seconds then made a brash comment; and that if you want to make a thoughtful reply you should do it on your own blog, or in 140 characters on Twitter.

The New York Times has been trying to incorporate showing more “trusted” comments first, similar to Amazon or Yelp reviews, but for the most part newspaper and magazine websites haven’t done much in the way of making comments any better. In fact, some have even tried defending anonymous comments, as if it is our right to anonymously have the freedom of speech. Being anonymous online is perfectly fine, but commenting on or reviewing certain things should have to tie to a verifiable human of some sort (this could also provide more transparency about governments and companies paying people for positive comments and reviews, as you would see what sort of posts he or she has made before), and there should also be a way devised to score how trusted someone’s opinion is on any given social media network.

These proposals will all depend on the culture of each site and which social networks make sense to incorporate into the integrity score, as verification of this sort would probably be most helpful for reviews and news sites. I don’t think any of us necessarily expect or deserve to see articulate and comprehensive feedback for an amateur video of a kid’s ballet recital, or a photo of someone’s lunch; the openness of Reddit usually leads to interesting conversations no matter how off topic some comments may get, but I do believe the conversation can and should be elevated on most other sites. Livefyre, OpenID and Disqus all seem to be at some stage of solving the anonymity issue of many sites’ commenting sections, so I see the issue of thoughtless and under-educated comments being the main problem to fix.

We can try to have a more civil Internet by doing a number of things at home and in our schools, and/or we can rank comments and reviews by an algorithm of online integrity rather than simply by number of up-votes or followers. So, this is where I propose a solution be worked out: If some sort of public ranking system was put in place similar to Yelp or Amazon reviews, where you can mark someone else’s Tweet/comment/review as helpful or not, many people who post rude or insensitive comments would get their comments ranked, most likely, as unhelpful, and their comments would from there on be less likely to be shown; also there could be a score next to his/her avatar saying how much “Online Integrity” he or she even has.

Whether the handle is anonymous, verified or a pseudonym, I think the score would be helpful. Reddit’s Karma system works similarly, and this seems like it could be a valuable tool in displaying comments on a number of sites. I propose that such a scoring system would be much more sane than the celebrity worship nature of Klout scores. In fact, a similar app, mockingly named Klouchebag, has a much more thoughtful approach for ranking your digital footprint, however crude it may be. The issue here is inevitably that some people are more active commenters and the ranking is all subject to cultural whims; in this sort of digitized democracy it can become too easy to bury an unpopular opinion just with enough down-votes, however valid the opinion may be.

THE INTERNET PARADOX:

Writing a good comment or review requires you to stop and think for a moment. This is why Facebook hasn’t ever added a “dislike” button. People are too quick to jump to the negative. I see this on Instagram sometimes, where liking is easy to do with a double tap of your finger, yet the comments are very often by trolls and spammers, or by people who see so many photos that very little constructive thought is able to go into the comment before they move on to the next photo. In a time before the digital age you would probably never see so many photos, let alone have such lackluster opinions about some of them. A great line about this comes from an article by Lawrence Weschler: “(Some years later, I had occasion to meet another artist, Robert Irwin, who for the first several decades of his career forbade any photo documentation of his work at all, on the grounds that a photograph could capture everything the work was not about and nothing that it was—which is to say, it could approximate the image but never convey its presence.)”

Too many people see a delete button to the Internet as though it’s the same as an eraser is to pencil and paper, rather than as an index that exists in one way or another long after you delete it, and the reasoning of “I can delete it” allows for way too many thoughtless comments. In working for clients on social media campaigns, we’ve encountered people online who have their social profiles connected to their company’s website and bio, completely transparently, and they still act brazenly un-human to others on Twitter and elsewhere. Such is the nature of rude or thoughtless people, but the act of typing to a screen dehumanizes the experience even more. The medium affects the message, and the further from human the medium the less thought invariably goes into the message.

Further, the lack of a face to face interaction on the web has, up until now, bred many anti-social behaviors, among them trolls who don’t hesitate to put in writing things they could never say in person without being attacked or ostracized. If we see a face on the screen, such as through Skype or Facetime, it at least helps contextualize our interactions and feels more like a human experience where you’re looking someone in the eyes while talking, but the nature of the Internet still begs for anonymity in many respects. Even Benjamin Franklin enjoyed writing articles under a pseudonym, and thinking back to prank calls before and since the days of caller-id makes it clear that anonymity, whether in being playful or hurtful, has some role and value in society.

NOTHING IS FOREVER (WHAT IS A COMMUNITY):

Nothing lasts forever, so we shouldn’t expect the Internet to either, and our time should be spent in real life when possible, outside or with friends and family enjoying being alive. With that said, its important to realize the Internet will probably be around for many generations to come, and the content we’ve uploaded will continue to exist in some manner within the index. We’re the first generation to have uploaded all our home movies and family photos and recorded life events, check-ins and relationships on social media sites, and when you die, most of this may continue to live on, memorialized. The same goes for comments, reviews and posts. Ever since Gmail began offering larger and larger storage capacities, and now with the move to store everything in the cloud, it is as though we have become digital hoarders, keeping every email and keystroke logged somewhere in the cloud, and it should be no surprise to you if the government has a copy of it somewhere. You can even install UneditReddit to see deleted Reddit comments in Chrome, so saying you deleted something doesn’t mean that no one saw it, or that there isn’t a screenshot or a copy of it somewhere.

I agree that as a blogger or website admin you’re entitled to encourage interaction or feedback on your site however you best see fit, but I am of the mind that the “no comments” approach is doing nothing to fix the problems of spam, trolling and haters. I also don’t think we should say, “some people are jerks” and just deal with the state of comments with moderation. Some people are bad drivers too, but we police them and keep a record of their violations tied to their license. I think digital personas should at least be accountable for their posts in form of a score based on their past interactions; until there’s such a service that can rank online integrity I’m fine with just using the Facebook comments plugin feature here on our site (below), so please feel free to continue the conversation with your comments and we’ll feel free to moderate them as we see fit.