To the Democrat and Chronicle and it’s readership:
I am now and have always been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the open community that is the Internet. I firmly believe in the democratic nature of this new frontier, fully appreciating the voice that it has allowed me where such opportunities did not previously exist. Blogging, with it’s easy publication and instant reader response, is a big part of democratizing information.
In an effort to appeal to this new sense of democratic information flow – and also to stem what many regard as a limitless loss of revenue and Internet readership – many traditional paper publications including the D&C have made moves to modernize their webspace. Providing RSS feeds has been a big move in the right direction toward reaching an increasingly decentralized audience. Most recently, the Democrat and Chronicle has added commenting to it’s site functionality, seeking to approximate the rapid-response nature of blogs. The D&C has, like many local papers, adopted the “Story Chat” platform.
That the D&C and others have tried to address the concerns and needs of their audience is a fact deserving of nothing less than respect and gratitude. But sadly the efforts to allow commenting have been – like many modernization efforts at the D&C – clumsy and delinquent, leading to an environment of unrestrained, anarchic abuse and vitriol on the D&C’s website. As one of the largest websites and most visible representations of Rochester, this is a condition that all Rochestarians aught to be alarmed by and ashamed of.
There can be no doubt, nor will I pretend any difference, that a large percentage of the commenters on the D&C are of Conservative mindset and a very small percentage are Liberal/Progressive. Where legitimate socio-political opinions and viewpoints are presented, it is a rare thing when I agree. However, my concern is neither the Liberal nor the Conservative percentage of the population. It is another, rapidly multiplying, segment of the commenters that I hold in mind; one which, as can be clearly – demonstrated, cannot bear rational discussion and have no other agenda but to use the comments sections to spill vitriolic bilge.
I cannot know the minds of the D&C commenting community. It would be unfair and wrong to lump the lot of them in with the “troll set” that has gotten so vociferous of late. Neither will I presume to psychoanalyze anyone or give voice to any presumed notion of their motives. Rather, it is to the Democrat and Chronicle itself that this letter is addressed. The editorial staff of the Democrat and Chronicle needs to take immediate action for the sake of it’s own reputation as well as that of Rochester, generally, and close the comments section, probably permanently.
Everything in Moderation
All of us in the blogging community welcome comments and engaged readers to our blogs. However, we are equally aware that the freedom to voice one’s opinion and have commenters reply back also bears with it the responsibility to moderate those comments when they become abusive. Moderation does not always need to be deleting comments or banning users: often, a respectful reply that discourages hateful retorts will suffice. Such a “cooling pan” of moderation can even help redirect potential “flame” users (hey, we’ve all had our moments) towards a more civil and rational discussion of a type that makes commenting worthwhile.
The Democrat and Chronicle has seen fit to take none of these options. Rather, they have put this “Story Chat” business in place and walked away. With no hands on the wheel, the commenting section has quickly devolved – in less than six months – into a warren for the hate-filled commentary that often goes so far off the deep end that it barely makes grammatical sense.
The editorial staff of the D&C needs to be made aware that, in the absence of moderation, all things found on their website are implicitly endorsed by the company and are a direct reflection upon them. That stands both legally and in the court of public opinion. Moreover, when Rochester news makes it’s way into Google news searches, the comments at the bottom are seen by people the world over and reflect negatively on our entire community.
Do not mistake my objection for prudishness, feigned or otherwise. You can find strong language many places on the Internet, including here. I make no apologies for speaking my mind, nor for offering a place where others are equally welcome. Meanwhile, to be sure, you’ll have no problem finding crudeness all over the Internet — and hate speech is hardly a challenge germane only to the D&C readership. But even private blogs run by novices rarely allow commenting to go so far as to refer to a dead woman’s children as “genetic material,” or openly celebrate the death of a complete stranger. These are things well beyond the pale, and the D&C has an obligation to answer for their inclusion.
The really unfortunate reality is that, like a bar that gets reopened with a different name, changing policies at the D&C are unlikely to significantly alter the clientèle. Perhaps I am mistaken, and indeed I am beginning to see more and more people objecting to the abuse publicly on the comments. I would like to think that I am wrong, for the sake of discourse in Rochester, but I doubt it.
It is reasonable to assume that the trolls that have found a home there will most likely stay for a while, continually changing usernames when they get banned and harrying the efforts to curtail them until the ultimate decision is to turn off the comments permanently. Any much-needed attempt to limit the abusive nature of the comments will require much more effort, time and expense of human resources than it might otherwise have, had the D&C consulted with knowledgeable professionals prior to making this unnecessarily sloppy leap into the Brave New World of blogging and commenting.
Whatever you’re choice, Democrat and Chronicle, I do very much hope that you have the good sense and manners to tell us exactly what you plan to do. Please offer your readership some explanation of how we got to where we are, apologize for what I’m sure is merely an oversight, and help us to move on.
(readers of this post, please note: I’m always up for comments, of course. But this one is really important, I think, so if you agree with the sentiments here, add your comment below so people can see it)