Citizen Media in Flames

Technology has given ordinary people the ability to make media, and many of us would like to help other citizens realize that potential. In light of that dream consider the sad fact that one newspaper had to shut down an open comment forum after it was swamped with hateful remarks.

A Media Center post pointed me to the Ventura County Star’s announcement that, four months after giving readers the ability to post live, unmoderated comments to stories published on its website, the paper was turning off that spigot. The problem, said the paper’s editors, was that “very quickly, race became the common theme on many of the topic threads. Whether it was a school award or a crime, it seemed that the comments quickly devolved into a discussion of race and immigration … The viciousness of the comments began to escalate.”

The Star first tried to moderate the comments and tone down excessive or defamatory remarks, but “with comments posted on dozens of stories, it ate up much of our day,” and so it pulled the plug.

I haven’t thought about the nasty factor in a while but that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Many years ago I moderated a chat forum during an early incarnation of My forum dealt with technology and the Internet. The Gate forums were shut down, years ago, in one of the site’s reorganizations, partly I’m sure to save money (forum moderators received a small monthly stipend) but also because the experiment was, I regret to say, largely a failure. The posters turned out to be a relatively small group of people. No general conversation among the broad base of readers ever occurred. On rare occasion I had to moderate some shrill exchanges. But these were all on tech topics — Mac-versus-PC fans. Tame stuff compared to the general passions that might be ignited if topics of general community interest were thrown open for comment.

Such arguments used to be called flame wars. A cursory search on the topic turned up a brief and insightful analysis of why people flame. “I would like to think that most of us actually do seek after truth,” author Timothy Campbell writes, adding, “It is for this reason that I think it is helpful to learn to spot how other people get into silly arguments … and then learn to spot this tendency in ourselves.”

While we try to exercise self-control, it is incumbent on anyone who hopes to create a public forum to recognize that, whatever the topic or niche, heat is hiding just below the surface. And it will be our responsibility to channel and control those given to passion outbursts so they do not inhibit speakers who favor more temperate remarks.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media