New York Times Public Editor Scolded For Suggesting Websites Should Treat News Commenters Like Actual Human Beings

For some time now, the opinion du jour in “enlightened” media circles has been to treat the news comment section (aka the customers who visit your website daily and directly) as some kind of irredeemable leper colony. One that should be nuked from orbit before the infection spreads. As such, we’ve seen website after website proudly crow about how they’ve given up on allowing site comments because a handful of posters are obnoxious, hateful little shits and the social media age means more direct community interaction is passe.

These announcements usually come hand in hand with all manner of disingenuous platitudes from the editorial staff, like we killed comments because we wanted to “build relationships,” or we muzzled our entire user base because we just “really value conversation.” Usually, this is just code for websites that are too lazy and cheap to moderate, weed and cultivate their community garden, and find it convenient to argue that outsourcing discourse to the homogenized blather realm of Facebook is an improvement.

Since this trend began a few years back, you’ll occasionally see an editor stop and realize that these disregarded masses are, warts and all, the life blood of a community — and preventing them from publicly interacting on site is actually a step backwards. Case in point is new New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, who this week asked a bizarre and outlandish question: what if websites were to treat these people like actual human beings and the comment section as something worth saving? Says Spayd:

What The Times and most other newsrooms mostly do now is not so much listen to readers as watch and analyze them, like fish in a bowl. They view them in bulk, through statistics measuring how many millions of “unique” users clicked on content last month, or watched a video, or came to the site multiple times, or arrived through Facebook.

What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey – preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?

This isn’t really complicated. Spayd refreshingly realizes that the rise of the comment troll is in many ways the fault of websites themselves. Writers and editors simply don’t want to cultivate real conversation, because it’s hard work and their current analytical tools can’t monetize discourse quality. Instead, websites have begun to approach the end user relationship like the owner of a prison colony who believes the entire sordid affair can only be improved by a good, industrialized delousing or the outsourcing to bigger, meaner prisons.

In reality studies have found that comment sections can be dramatically improved — simply by treating site visitors well and by having somebody at the website make a basic effort at fundamental human-to-human communication:

One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.

Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,” according to the study.

With the daily struggle to produce more and more content in a sea of more and more competitors, it’s simply easier to pretend that the comment section doesn’t matter.

But what’s being pushed as enlightened evolution by editors is just willful obliviousness driven by lazy thinkers, incapable of embracing anything that can’t be clearly, graphically monetized. It’s thinking built at media empires with the multi-million dollar backing of giant conglomerates, where actual human interaction is already more easily obscured by the daily shuffle of incessant bi-coastal conference calls. Since the comment section is perhaps the most valuable source of corrections, it’s also a wonderful way for such giant companies to avoid advertising that their writers may have made a mistake.

I’ve been at the heart of one smaller, community-driven website since 1999 (DSLReports.com) and a writer here at Techdirt for several years, so it’s perhaps more obvious to me that scrappier upstarts don’t have the luxury of telling their entire community to piss off to Twitter if they want to leave public feedback.

Not too surprisingly, Spayd’s idea was received poorly by some in the news media who believe public interaction with readership on site is either beneath them or wholly irrelevant in the social media era. MIT Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin was quick to declare that Spayd’s comments reflected a “disastrous first outing” as the Times’ new public editor, going further to suggest that anybody who gives a damn about public comments has the “wrong priorities”:

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Slate was also quick to deride Spayd’s outlandish treatise (which again, is to simply give a damn about your on-site community) as the “phony populism” and “willfully naive” rhetoric of a bygone era:

After writing that the paper is trying to move in the direction of more comments, she adds that the speed at which it has done so has been hindered by “other newsroom priorities.” I’m not sure what those other priorities are, but to spend your first column focusing on something like a comments section is another sign that Spayd’s priorities are bizarre and even-this will sting-out of touch.

Yes, how gauche. As we all know by now, you don’t build community by treating site visitors well, you build community by telling them all to fuck off to Facebook, where their infectious, intellectual detritus can be more easily ignored.

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