In an op-ed column, “The Internet Has Failed,” Dan O’Connor of the Johns Hopkins Bioethics Bulletin writes this about online comments:
“Time was when ‘disabling comments’ on a blog post was at best an indication of arrogance and at worst an indication that the author was an anti-democratic elitist who did not value the opinions of his or her readers. It is time, I think, for us to accept that disabling or deleting idiot comments is no more anti-democratic or elitist than refusing to engage with a person harrassing you on the street. Just because everyone is allowed to have their say, it does not follow that the bilge they say is worth listening to.”
Let’s take this analogy further. Everyone has a right to attend their local city council meetings, but no one has the right to constantly interrupt it by screaming obscenities or continuously trying to change the subject. Yet, no one is complaining about how Robert’s Rules of Order is anti-democratic.
For deliberation at any level to be meaningful, there must be structure to the deliberation process. … Even the general assemblies at Occupy Wall Street attempt to structure their dialogues.
The same can be said for online comments.
However, I think it’s best to dispense with this notion of “democracy” in the context of comments and the Internet as a whole, because it is, in many ways, a straw man.
Let’s step back and consider the web in general. It is a medium which, like radio and television before it, enables communication between groups of people. But unlike radio and television, the web is more prosumptive – at any given time, a user, though more likely to be consuming materials, has the capacity to produce his or her own content. Whereas previous media were characterized by a “one-to-many” communication structure, the web’s structure is many-to-many.
This has led scholars and others to imagine the web as an ideal public sphere — a site where individuals can engage in authentic social and political deliberation. And although newspapers (and other traditional news providers) have struggled with business models on the web, this structure should (hypothetically) be good for business; the local newspaper’s website becomes the vanguard for local/niche social and political thought enabled by a comments section, which, unlike the Letters to the Editor page, isn’t constrained by time and space.
The problem is that it shouldn’t be taken for granted that this will happen on its own. For deliberation at any level to be meaningful, there must be structure to the deliberation process. This may be as vague as abiding by some set of ethics, as specific as following a parliamentary process, or as obvious as “no profanity allowed.” Only then can issues be properly discussed. Even the general assemblies at Occupy Wall Street attempt to structure their dialogues.
Which is to say that, I think, “democracy” has been coupled with unfettered dialogue in a way that is ultimately counter-productive. Of course it’s going to appear that “the Internet has failed” if the assumption is that saying whatever one wants to say, however they want to say it, is analogous to democracy. Who would want that? Not many, it turns out. We have seen the consequence of this line of thinking at a number of news websites, where editors, upset with the overall tone of the comments and seeing no way out, shut down their boards entirely.
But it is still possible for comment boards to foster a productive dialogue. It just requires structure. We should remind ourselves that a deliberative structure, fairly designed, can be a means toward democratic ends and not anathema to it. There is nothing inherently “anti-democratic” or “elitist” about it. Once we recognize this, I believe it will be possible to build a less toxic and more democratic commenting environment.
It’s not the Internet that has failed — it’s that we’re failing the Internet.
Oibaf: I'd first say that there's no "one size fits all websites," and while some may find a Slashdot approach appropriate and workable, others will need to be more restrictive (a la, Anthony's comparison to running a City Council meeting with public participation but with rules to prevent chaos and an unproductive meeting). Newspaper sites, especially, because there's generally no focus or niche to bind people together and because they often cover contentious public issues, I believe are more likely to need to implement some reasonable restrictions -- such as cutting off the incivil jerks who are not contributing anything constructive. (Note that a commenter could come across as an absolute jerk but offer substantive opinion or facts, in which case I would not necessarily want to see them blocked.)
On one level I like the idea of thresholds that users can set so they don't see the awful stuff (very democratic, as you say). But at news sites I've often seen truly awful stuff in comments that I don't think should be seen at all. E.g., a cyclist gets killed by a car and the worst anonymous commenters go off about how the person deserved it because he ran a stop sign; or a teen murders her mother and commenters say the mom deserved it for being a bad mother or had a drinking problem. With the threshold, those comments are still viewable to family members in those instances. I think in such cases it's reasonable for editors to keep those kind of comments out of article comment threads.
Slashdot shows that it's possible to allow thousands people to comment without any kind of censorship effectively. All comments are accepted, but moderators randomly selected among the readers with a "karma" above a certain threshold can moderate them up or down, and all readers autonomously decide which is the level below which to hide comments from their view. Quite democratic.