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Write Responsibly

I Lost a World threw a fantastic post onto the Prompt-ly list for discussion, especially in light of the fact that we all often have to swallow hard in order to dive into the comment section of some of the larger sites (cough… New York Times… cough cough… HuffPo) when they write about infertility. (That is, unless you enjoy having strangers tell you to stop whining and just adopt!)

Anil Dash’s take is that if the comment section is full of assholes, it’s the fault of the online publication. He points out that everywhere else in life, we have guidelines to help humans act like… humans. But for some reason, we throw out all of those ideals when it comes to the online world. He writes: “If you run a website, you need to follow these steps. If you don’t, you’re making the web, and the world, a worse place. And it’s your fault. Put another way, take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.”

Er… by the way, YOU write a website if you write a blog. So you best pay attention.

I both agree and disagree with Dash. I think a lot of his advice is spot-on. Monitor your comments. Delete the ones that are simply hurtful. Respond to questions. The larger the site, the more monitors you need.

You should have a commenting guideline. Do you have one on your “about me” page? You might want to write up something simple if you allow for comments. Mine says:

I’m all for disagreement, as long as it’s polite. I will remove any comments that I deem off-topic, rude, or mean-spirited. If you return to my blog and see your comment gone (really, why are you coming back to check on your comment?), that should probably be your clue that I thought your comment was off-topic, rude, or mean-spirited. Rather than write another comment that is off-topic, rude, or mean-spirited that I will also remove, please simply click away from my blog. This space is not for everyone even though I try to be as inclusive as possible.

For the record, beyond spam, I have had to remove very few comments. But I don’t leave up hurtful words — especially about another blogger — for the sake of authenticity any more than I would leave up swastikas if someone spray painted them on my shul just for the sake of keeping it real.

Dash is against anonymous commenting (I actually can think of many places where it is necessary within the health blogging world) and pro letting the community help with the policing of comments in being able to flag them.

The level of responsibility is the big place where we part ways. I don’t think it is 100% the responsibility of the blog or website owner. I think it’s more of a 98% responsibility, leaving a healthy 2% wiggle room to account for imperfections in the creation of online communities as well as limitations of technology and differences in what we deem allowable.  There are going to be comments sometimes that don’t offend me but offend someone else, and since I can’t see all words through everyone else’s eyes, it would be impossible to keep a 100% inoffensive site.

Also, Dash pulls from the idea that we can keep order in the face-to-face world.  But the difference with the face-to-face world and physical communities vs. online communities is that we can see who we are dealing with, so Dash’s point doesn’t completely translate. It is easier to block a person from attending an event than block someone from leaving a comment since there are more loopholes around filters than there are gmail accounts in the world.

Though to return to the swastika analogy, I would be cranky with my shul and stop attending if they told me that they weren’t going to remove the symbol from the walls of the shul after someone sprayed it on — either because they didn’t have the time or they thought it was wrong to take down someone else’s form of self-expression. Yet we’re not equally appalled by blogs (especially big sites such as the New York Times) that leave up hateful comments; in fact, we sometimes applaud a site for the authenticity of it, for giving people the opportunity for free speech. Unlike spray painting swastikas, no property is destroyed, but I think there is emotional carnage in both hateful words and hateful symbols.

Within online sites, where does free speech end and hateful commenting begin? Where is that line? And do you agree that the blog (or site) owner is 100% responsible for the content that appears anywhere on their sites — from their posts to their comments?   Can you still support the New York Times as a whole if they allow for hateful words to be left in their comment section?


1 Heather { 08.08.11 at 1:00 pm }

I think that if you put your name, your words, and your life out there, you are ultimately responsible for the love, the hate, etc.

Locally, the news website has gone to no Anonymous commenting. All comments are linked to twitter or FB. Interesting thought.

I think it’s going to be hard for bloggers to buy in to any of that, because there are still a ton who are completely anonymous.

I’ve not said much until now, but this was interesting..

2 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 08.08.11 at 4:00 pm }

I think most of the comments that give us the biggest stomachaches on NYT, HuffPo, etc. are not ones that would get flagged or banned by a comment policy. “Just adopt” I find annoying but can write off as someone who clearly doesn’t understand the adoption process. The ones that really bug me are about infertility being a sign that some people not being meant to have children. If said in a calm way, there’s nothing inflammatory — just an opinion that differs from mine.

There are also a lot of bothersome comments I’ve seen on articles about surrogacy where the IPs (esp. the woman) is called selfish, just wants a surrogate so she doesn’t mess up her figure, etc. When the comments include ad hominem attacks of course they could get flagged/deleted, but many just wouldn’t meet that threshold.

I would also add that the success of some websites is based on their ‘colorful’ comments sections — on some websites, it’s more about the comments than the original content. It’s not in their interest to police their comment sections.

3 a { 08.08.11 at 6:03 pm }

I don’t know. Our local newspaper has a pretty strict commenting policy and frequently removes comments. But I can certainly find comments from the idiotic and misinformed that are offensive. A recent article about the coverage of Birth Control got people pretty fired up, and I was inspired to respond to someone. He was complaining about how this “free healthcare” is making it more expensive to pay for coverage for his diabetic daughter, disabled son, and something to do with his wife. I had to respond that it wasn’t fair for him to object when his unhealthy or unlucky family is making it more expensive for my healthy family to have health care coverage. I’m sure we were both offended by each others’ comments, but we both had valid points.

It’s just a difficult line to judge. I generally object to censorship, but would this qualify? You can kick people out of your house if they say something rude. Kicking them off your blog doesn’t seem that different. On a newspaper type site? Well, that might be a different story.

4 Chickenpig { 08.08.11 at 6:59 pm }

Why yes, I do think it is the blogger’s responsibility. I consider blogs like 18th century salons. Polite discourse and disagreement is allowed, along with entertainment and a variety of prepared subjects to discuss. Salons were run by the hosts and hostesses, and it was completely their responsibility to keep everything civil and to broach new subject matter if things became tense. Since a salon was usually hosted on private property it was the host’s responsibility to kick out offending parties. Saying you were too busy talking to the cook to notice two of your guests coming to blows would not cut it as an excuse. It’s a lot of work, but if bloggers don’t want to have a ‘salon’ they can just post whatever they feel without opening the comments.

5 Erica { 08.08.11 at 7:03 pm }

I struggle with the idea of online censorship – I think that the internet is a great place for passionate debate and to find a variety of viewpoints. But I also know and have seen, repeatedly, that many people are much less likely to be considerate or civil when writing an online comment than they are when speaking to a person. It matters, when you see someone’s face and the impact that your words have on them.

The line for me is usually crossed when someone moves from addressing the content of a post, article, video, etc., and moves on to writing personal insults or disparaging speculations about the author(s). I’ve been very lucky with my own blog comments, but Dash’s article really made me start thinking of my responsibilities to my readers in a different way.

6 Justine { 08.09.11 at 2:15 am }

Interesting. I wonder whether it makes a difference if a blog/website is published by a conglomerate or by an individual? I do think that I have a responsibility to keep my site clean from comments and speech that are hateful. But do I need to worry about the free speech of my readership as much as a site that is published by a media group made up of people with a wide variety of opinions? Can I censor in a way that I expect that NYT or HP *not* to?

Whatever we decide, you’re right; we owe it to our readers to make the policy about commenting transparent. It is, at least, on the websites of those larger sites, isn’t it? Or is it just implicit?

7 Briar { 08.09.11 at 10:24 am }

I can’t read them. I don’t look at the comments on any “news” site anymore. I do believe something should be done by website owners. But if I miss reading all those comments because I can’t stomach the yucky ones, I’ll live.

I am a staunch believer that commenting skills and Internet communication skills in general MUST be taught in schools. We do this now in 4th grade (and onward) at my school – explicit lessons in the fact that your behavior online is just as important and REAL as your “real life.” We have been working with class blogs and commenting so far and I hope to keep expanding it. I think everyone should be pushing their schools to do this. I think grown-ups are a lost cause but we can do better in the future. I, in fact, believe the children are our future. Heh.

8 Rachel { 08.09.11 at 5:26 pm }

I can’t handle comments in non-infertilty blogging world. Seriously. People can’t spell, use strange capitalization, and have no idea what in the world they are talking about. I’m all for spirited debate, but not if the resources cited are strictly opinions.

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