NPR abandons doomed experiment in online commenting

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“On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.”

But they find out quickly enough.

New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner captured something true about our virtual reality with this 1993 caption. But 23 years later, we don't call online yappers and growlers “dogs.” The word “troll” has come to fit the bill.

NPR took a stand against trolls this week, telling its online audience it was going to stop allowing readers to write comments underneath stories, effective next week. The comments under this particular announcement were predictably disapproving of the move—at least for a short while. Within a few steps, the conversation devolved into which group is more hateful—Clinton supporters or Trump supporters.

Which only proves NPR's point. The comments underneath stories aren't worth the headaches and the money it costs to hire people to monitor them. Readers' comments stray from the topic at hand, and they are hijacked by a small number of opinionated aggressors. If you still think a utopia of community commentary can still exist under news articles online, then I suggest you read this piece by Chris Cillizza, political blogger for The Washington Post, who has tried unsuccessfully for the past decade to create a fruitful exchange of ideas in his blog, called the Fix:

“It was the opposite of the community I was trying to build. Instead of providing a place where political junkies could trade thoughts, ideas and jokes about the political scene, the Fix comments section turned into a town in which the loudest and most obnoxious guy appoints himself mayor.”

Some media outlets still allow anonymous commenting—a real throwback to an optimistic era when people thought they could create the ideal community online. All anonymity ever accomplished in my experience was to show how many racists are actually out there. Read the Skagit Valley Herald comments circa 2009, and you will no longer wonder how Donald Trump could ever be nominated for president of the United States. (The running joke in the SVH newsroom was, “How many comments will it take until someone hates Hispanics?”—regardless of the topic of the story.)

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