Listening Post: A few comments on comments

Over the years comments and audience interaction have become an increasingly prominent part of NCPR’s online presence. We have conversations on Facebook, around photos and blog posts, about poems and articles and programs and policies. Sometimes a handful, sometimes hundreds tussling back and forth across days. In general that’s a good thing, but sometimes it can get pretty toxic, and then I get to reluctantly don my hat as conversation moderator. As interaction has grown, this role is taking up more and more of my time.

Commenters on The Listening Post are generally pretty mild, kind and helpful. I’m not given to expounding on the great controversies of the day. As Ellen Rocco told me on one memorable occasion, “Dale, nobody cares whether you think the the aliens hovering over the earth in their Mothership have four eyes rather than three.” To which I say, “Nobody cares–YET.”

The same is also true about commenters in the Book Club and The Dirt, and even the new Prison Time blog. But our news stories and the In Box news blog posts seem to draw a regular crop of rancor and dyspepsia. I was crunching the numbers yesterday and looked at who posts comments at the In Box–the 38,099 comments at the In Box. And I found that more than 20,000 (52% of all comments) come from nine individual users. One could call them “highly-engaged readers,” or more colloquially “frequent flyers.”

Recently, scientists have been saying that their sites devoted to conversation on matters of research have been made unusable by blizzards of comments from people who have purely political positions on matters of scientific inquiry. We find something similar in reporting on other matters of local controversy–in health care, land use, gun control, education, the environment. The result is more of a drum solo than a conversation.

I would like to see many more people commenting on matters that concern them, representing many more viewpoints, and providing more information and less opinion. But I do not control the universe (yet). So I’ll start with a few basic questions. What would encourage you to participate in a conversation at NCPR? What discourages you from participating in online conversation?


26 Comments on “Listening Post: A few comments on comments”

  1. David Brill says:

    What discourages me (perhaps to your glee) is that the comments are unavailable, even as a link. Of course, I am poor at computer science so I may just not be able to figure out where the are.
    Concerning the scientists complaining about politic, can you explain to me why aids or HIV or which ever term you prefer, is treated by the scientific community as a civil rights issue rather than a public health issue?

  2. Dale Hobson says:

    If you mean the comments on this post, you can’t find the others because you are the first.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  3. Scott Atkinson says:

    Couple of things:

    – not the case at NCPR, but almost everyone allows anonymous commentary, which just poisons the well. I use my real name (or a very obvious variant) for everything I write online, because I need the reminder that I’m about to put something stupid or unkind on the internets, and will be accountable for it.

    – I frequented the local web board here in Watertown for a couple of years, but have mostly stopped posting. I got tired of the arguing, especially my contribution. I think it’s because most online stuff is more about scoring points than it is about learning something new – can’t think of the last time I saw someone stop in the middle of a thread and go ‘Wait a minute….I didn’t think of that. Let me chew on it for a while.”


  4. Hank says:

    What discourages me is when I find that previous posters (postmen? postwomen?) on an issue are being too strident in their comments or are straying too far from the intent of the original question – often to pursue their own agenda. That puts me right off and I’ll just stop reading such a post, let alone reply with my own comment. I agree with you, Dale, that the most useful posts are those that add information or perspective but don’t dissolve into politically-minded gibberish. And I am taken aback sometimes at how virulent the comments can be.

    Having said that, I find that generally (not always) the comments posted on the NCPR Inbox are of much higher intellectual content than those I find on other news media sites (such as the CBC News site, to take a particularly egregious example).

  5. jill vaughan says:

    I realized I take things too personally, so I don’t comment, unless it’s on one of the “safe” blogs. Any disagreement is pounced on, and it’s just not worth it. If I see a commment that seems fresh, it means that person will be reviled and won’t show up much. Wonder if some of it has to do with the homogeneous group that has time to comment and discuss?

  6. Ellen Fleischmann says:

    Good comments above. I think Jill’s point is apt. Some people have a lot more time to spend reacting to things they read. I have found NCPR a more civilized place to post than others. I don’t often contribute to other sites I visit because I don’t have the time, and don’t want the aggro of responding to comments that are often incoherent, ignorant, vitriolic and not worth raising my blood pressure. The reason I am responding here is because I want to encourage the opposite – and I think NCPR manages somehow to elicit more thoughtful posters (does this solve your problem, Hank?)

  7. I’m reminded of a recent FB item that was making the rounds: “If I could go back in time 50 years to tell someone about the most amazing and unexpected advance made in that half century, I’d have to tell him it’s a device that’s so small it fits in my pocket, contains all the knowledge of the universe, and I use it to share pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.” That said, I think it’s a matter of time. Modern life’s conveniences have become time-suckers. What was once fairly simple and time-saving has become complex (online banking, for example). Passwords, once simplistic, now must be complex and too long to remember. We’re on line a lot. We have to pick our platforms. NCPR provides interesting and informative information, but the time we spend absorbing it may be all the time we have to devote, hence no comments.

    For those of us in business, just keeping up to date (FB page, website) takes computer time.

    And for many North Country Public Radio listeners, the outdoors, computer-less and enjoyable, calls us from our desks and laptops. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

  8. Ellen Pardoe says:

    I love reading the listening post and other NCPR postings. I rarely comment as I usually agree with the topics and positions. Unless I find something truly contradictory to my opinion than I find I am tolerant of the opinions of others. I do not tolerate racist, sexist, discriminatory or derogatory remarks. I find that I am unwilling to engage with ignorance and hate. It is not worth my time or trouble to do so and my blood pressure is high enough!

    I enjoy sharing experiences and stories, especially those I have had in the the North Country. Regards to all.


  9. Hank says:

    Thanks, Ellen (Fleischmann). Yes, the posts here so far on this issue seem thoughtful and respectful and make staying with this topic interesting and informative. I regularly follow and contribute to another “inbox”-type site (that deals with wilderness canoeing, one of my favourite outdoor activities and, granted, not a very politically charged activity) and I consider it a model for how these commentary sites should behave.

  10. Ken Hall says:

    I follow Scotts’ mandate of: “I use my real name (or a very obvious variant) for everything I write online” when commenting at local blog sites; however, when I comment at “James Howard Kunstlers'” I do employ a nom de plume.

    As I am in the Winter of my existence here on spaceship Earth, I do not have enough living friends and acquaintances to make it desirable to participate in any of the so called social networking activities on line or utilizing a “smart” phone; but, I do enjoy a bit of banter on a blog site or three.

    The conduct of business, science, mathematics, law, ., ., ., life is entwined with argumentation, which although not synonymous with “fighting” is often mistaken for and can lead to same. It is rational and reasonable that arguing or discussing a contentious arena of thought will take one hither and yon during such endeavors. It has been my observation that folks with less mainstream and/or weaker logical argument often reach for jingoistic platitudes with which to chastise those with whom they realize ideological dissent. I find an appropriate response to a rash of emotional argumentation is occasionally called for; however, the inane tit-for-tat that often arises is ludicrous.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Dale, are you calling me a troll?

    I wish Jill and others wouldn’t take things personally because I enjoy seeing their comments.

  12. newt says:

    As a very likely frequent flyer, I don’t what to think about this. I find the postings, and comments (most of the time) to be civil, and extremely interesting and enlightening. Most of us engage in discussions that are reasonable, polite, and often supported with substantial documentation (cf. the Brian’s recent one on possible “bleeding out” of North Country school systems).
    I also think that lately there has been less stuff bordering on name-calling or ad hominem accusations, and more strictly based on (what the commenter at least thinks are) facts. But maybe you have been intercepting , and preventing us from seeing others that are uncivil. I feel badly that more people don’t comment, though I’ve met some that say that enjoy the In-Box a lot, but comment little.
    But maybe it’s time for us keyboard loudmouths to button it up.

  13. newt says:

    I heard last night in the station’s promo for today’s news something to the effect that you were covering the the Mike Fayette vs. Cuomo Admin. story, and that it was getting a lot of comments on the In-Box. It would seem that the station was happy to call attention to the comments as part of the buzz over this story, with the intent of drawing in other listeners. All very appropriate, but not an indication that In-Box comments were a problem. I believe I saw several new, or seldom previously-seen, names on attached to comments on that thread.
    My overall feeling i(discounting my own contributions) that there is a very high positive “signal-to-noise ” ratio on what I see here.

  14. David Duff says:

    Civil conversation and no yelling or name-calling would encourage me to participate more in online conversations. (Don’t like the way the computer sucks up time, either.)

  15. Tim Douglas says:

    This problem is quite common across the internet, the very simple solution is to only allow people the ability to sign in using their real name and verified email address (or Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Stack Exchange does this very well, allowing users a multitude of ways to log in:

    Leave ‘Anonymous’ log ins to 4chan and Reddit. The internet is progressing, and with any luck the anonymous internet troll will be left behind.

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I suppose I will have to resort to using emoticons in the future. Let me try again:

    Dale, are you calling me a troll? ; ) *joshing*

  17. JDM says:

    I wouldn’t post my real name on any of these blogs.

    Having participated somewhat frequently over a period of time, I think the level of anger and name-calling that I have experienced on these blogs is enough to warrant caution in disclosing too much personal information.

  18. Peter Hahn says:

    As another frequent flyer, (and after hearing the interview this morning), I have to add to others statements that these blogs are remarkably civil. Occasionally people say things too stridently but compared to most sites this is a bastion of good humored give and take – even the in-box – which is really designed as place for airing differing opinions. The value to us (the frequent flyers) and hopefully to anyone reading the exchanges is that you do get both sides of issues argued intelligently (at least the arguments that I agree with). (add emoticon of choice). I think for most of us, if we are called out for saying something un-civil or overly heated, we apologize, and tone things down. This happens rarely.

    If you want us to comment less, we can do that, but I doubt that that will get others to jump in. But it might.

  19. Dale says:

    Knuck–You may have been joshing, but you weren’t wrong. There are times when I shouldn’t be trusted behind a keyboard. All of us have said things in hot pursuit of a point that–let’s just say–might turn to stone if exposed to sunlight. My own inner troll was showing. Apologies also to newt commenting above.

    I was kind of freaked out to discover that more than 50% of In Box conversation was coming from nine voices. I knew it was a lot, but didn’t think it was that much. But that’s a different problem, and not one that is improved by pushing people away.

    I find some helpful info in many of the comments above that could make all of our NCPR conversations more inclusive, and make for better reading, too. For one–I agree with Ken about the good effects on conversation where people wear their own names. I always do. I know that we live in small tight communities, and some of us work in places where we can’t air our views in a public way, but I would encourage people, wherever they can, to use their real names when commenting.

    Newt is right when he says the “signal to noise ratio” is pretty good at the In Box, particularly when compared to other venues. And in fact it is probably better than on our news stories about hot topics. These get syndicated well outside our usual audience, and some of them attract a lot of genuine trollishness.

    In another comment newt says that he also feels the lack of other voices at the In Box and closes with “But maybe it’s time for us keyboard loudmouths to button it up.” I would say it differently. You “frequent flyers” collectively set the tone for conversation at the In Box. Other people will join in or not join in based of how welcoming they find that tone to be. Other commenters have given examples of what keeps them out of conversation. There are a lot of different ways to make a point, and a lot of different ways to engage with the post author and other commenters. The ways you choose will determine what kind of space NCPR becomes.

    For myself–I would really like to see NCPR shine in this area. I can’t make it happen just by lecturing my guests and using the delete button as needed.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  20. Claudia says:

    It seems to me that what has happened is not the lack of comments or the variety of commentators, rather, it is that Dale spends more time than is desirable monitoring the site.
    I occasionally read comments and add my own but ultimately, I feel if the issue is one I care deeply about or am concerned with, this is not the forum to use to reach the folks I should speak with re my concerns.
    Perhaps the comment section should be done away with for the above reasons.
    NCPR: you can’t do it all!
    Good luck.

  21. newt says:

    Thank you Dale, for reconsidering and clarifying your earlier post.

    As I think I stated above, I find the comments to be very stimulating, challenging, and broadening. I would hate to see them done away with.

    From the comments on this post, I suspect that many of us frequent flyers don’t mind mixing it up a bit, and, in fact, find it stimulating. Others seem to find it tiresome, rude, disgusting, etc. I don’t know how you can please both groups, but I’m inclined to support the idea of speaking up in spite of the possibility of offending someone, rather than keeping quiet in fear of offending someone.

    As Peter said above, I doubt that a reduction of participation by the frequent flyers would result in many more comments from others. Could be wrong.

  22. jill vaughan says:

    When I say I take it personal, I am just stating a fact- I hate arguing, because I’ve never seen anyone change anyone else’s mind- but I like reading the comments, and don’t think anything is lost by my not commenting. I just like to lurk, and not speak- my problem, not anyone else’s.

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It seems ridiculous for Dale to have to read everything. Is it possible to have a “flag” button and commenters can self-police?

    I like the free-flowing exchange on the In Box and I’m inclined to give people a little slack for getting testy. If people don’t push the boundries in a discussion how do we learn anything? Sometimes I’m guilty of pushing things too far, and I try to apologize when that happens. I’ve had to do that more than once, but a life without mistakes is a life not truly lived. And it is important in a democracy for us to not separate into like-minded camps that never talk to each other. Maybe it gets messy, but it’s important.

    Maybe the discussion never changes anyone’s mind, but it does give insight into other people’s point of view and why they feel that way. I’ve probably never done an about face on an opinion because of what I’ve read here, but I have changed the way I’ve thought about things.

    Finally, I believe there is value in having the ability to comment anonymously, as long as it isn’t just being used to troll. Not knowing how much Dale has to deal with in that regard it seems pretty well handled here.

    All in all there seems to be a neighborliness about NCPR blogs, but how do we lighten Dale’s load?

  24. Anne Burnham says:

    Hi Dale,

    In one day since I read this post, I have already had the opportunity to quote your 52% from 9 sources statistic at least once. Thanks for the info.

    Anne B

  25. Dale says:

    Knuck asks: “It seems ridiculous for Dale to have to read everything. Is it possible to have a “flag” button and commenters can self-police?”

    Somebody does have to read it all, after the fact if not before, whether self-policing is in use or not. (We do you use community moderation on news story comments–if enough different visitors flag a comment as inappropriate, it is hidden from the feed).

    But there are a couple good reasons to read it all. One is for the same reason we answer our own phones and try to respond to all direct email–as a community based and supported organization, we need to be approachable and responsive.

    Another reason is that there is one lawyer for every 280 Americans–and we are legally responsible for what is published via our website. Comments can result in libel complaints, copyright violations and other legally actionable content.

    And a third reason is site security. We have several times as many comments submitted by spammers as we do by legitimate commenters. We have good automation to catch the lion’s share of that, but there are a few each day that slip through the filters and need to be read by a human to be stopped. Comments from spammers can contain malicious code that poses a threat to our users who might click on links to malware.

    Whether “Dale” has to read them all is another matter. It could be someone else’s job, or it could be divided among a number of people, but there just aren’t that many people here, and they all have their own jobs.

    I’m sure there are things I can do to make the job less time-consuming and I am investigating a couple ideas now. But for now–I’m it.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  26. Joseph S says:

    I understand that too much personal information online is a vector for identity theft and opens oneself up to repercussions, but when I was a freshman in college 15 years ago, I noticed an obvious difference between chat rooms (anonymous dens of nastiness and cruelty) and listserves (completely transparent and civil).

    Anonymity, while it has some necessity in situations where one can be in real peril, such as blow-back for govt and coporate whistleblowers, generaly allows one to hide from accountability and the scrutiny of cross-examination necessary for democracy. Even Abe Lincoln wrote the most vicious political attacks as “anonymous” in his early political career.

    I often find the nastiness to be off-topic and not even imaginative or interesting. In the U.S. it’s nasty put-downs, internationally, it’s even crueller and more opaque- trolls such as the “Putin-bots”. Deciphering “fact” “fiction” and “truth” in all that is a lost cause. On a final note, I am blessed (or cursed) enough to actually be Joseph Smith. (un)Lucky me. The most (un)trustworthly person alive.

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