Here at UW-Madison over the last few weeks, one of our student newspapers has been wrestling with the issue of incivility in the anonymous comments that they allow readers to post after each article. They claim to be moving toward a full moderation system to ward off personal attacks masquerading as productive debate, but as of last Friday had apparently not yet implemented any policy change.
The contradictions of civility, anonymity, and moderation in online spaces are certainly not new. Anonymity is supposed to allow one safe participation in an online forum without fear of reprisal in the real world; however, the juvenile and mob-like aggression and assault invited by an open anonymous forum can serve to chill the very speech it was intended to protect. Moderation holds out the promise of gatekeeping in such online spaces to sift and winnow the productive dialogue from the mean-spirited diatribe; however, besides being constantly prone to charges of censorship and favoritism, any moderation system beyond a simple keyword-based SPAM filter requires thoughtful, thorough, and expensive human labor. And finally, at the same time news organizations feel pushed by online norms of audience “playbor” to open up comment spaces to wide participation, those very comment spaces themselves might discourage deeper forms of audience engagement — including paid support — as they deter and disgust all but the most polarized of readers.
Different online organizations have approached this problem in different ways. Over at the New York Times, for example, individual weblogs within the organization sometimes exercise more or less control over the comments. But all are subject to an overall policy of screening and moderation:
Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we have created a space where readers can exchange intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers and generally cannot alter a comment once it is posted.
Closer to home, the Capital Times, which is staking its future on a rich online presence coupled with two free weekly print products (one news-based, one entertainment-based), requires any commenters to register and agree to some lenthy terms of service. With respect to “Online Conduct,” they say
I’m curious to hear what other SJMC faculty, staff, and students think about the world of online comments and the various social and technological solutions which have so far emerged to reckon with them. How do we keep online spaces both open and civil? Both diverse and productive? Both safe and interesting?