News alert: Online comment fields can get a little scary. There’s nothing new there–I can remember in 1991 getting called a Nazi on a Usenet chat board about the “X-Files” (kids, ask Siri what Usenet is, and “X-Files” while you’re at it) because someone didn’t like my theory of The Smoking Man‘s motivation. But as our world becomes more fragmented–as we sink into our own online echo chambers, or “digital hollows” as I call them–civility dissipates. We are seeing it now here in the United States with a government shut down because political parties are stuck in their own hollows.
For a time I was part of an online civility movement, but I confess that other life responsibilities did not allow me to continue with that enterprise. I was reminded of my study of the subject over the weekend, however, when I read a column in The Washington Post by Alexandra Petri about online comment fields. (I’m showing my age here; she is a Post blogger and her piece had already been online for some time before I read it on my morning dead tree.) She wrote that Popular Science magazine has eliminated its comment section because, according to online editor Suzanne LeBarre, “comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.” In other words, uninformed opinions below scientific articles were undermining the empirical, peer-reviewed facts above them.
I started this blog in the fall of 2010, but I had written for three group blogs before that, all policy advocacy blogs. Before that I had been a reporter for an online news publication that accepted comments. I frequently found myself eviscerated by online commenters. One commenter, below a 2009 blog post where I talked about educating our nation’s youth, said I wanted to “mind-rape children.” I will confess that when I launched The Artist’s Road I braced myself for such hostility. But, with only a few exceptions, it has not arrived.
Petri provides some insight as to why:
The few places where the comments sections are the home of a vibrant, riveting, polite discussion are the ones where the host site has made a vigorous effort to create community.
The very conceit of The Artist’s Road is conversation. I invite the informed thoughts of my readers who have their own experiences with the issues I am myself exploring on my path to an art-committed life. I do not claim to have all of the answers; I recognize I never will. I savor the collective wisdom that emerges from reader conversation.
Petri notes that blogs focused on policy and politics do not have that same sense of community; readers parachute in, drop their explosives, and move on to the next battlefield. At blogs where a reader feels a part of something larger and is inclined to return, there is more incentive to practice the courtesies we expect from each other in terms of politeness and respect.
I will confess to a challenge I have been facing lately with this blog. I have written before about how the blogosphere is like a series of villages. I wrote how in the blogging classes I teach I encourage bloggers, when visited by a neighbor blogger, to pay a return visit to the neighbor’s blog. Community members are supposed to support each other. I admitted in that June 2012 post that I was very poor at practicing that. Now that The Artist’s Road has more than 10,000 followers it has become all but impossible to visit my commenters with any regularity.
Perhaps I am now hosting a public square in the village, an open area where anyone can visit and say what they like, and be heard by whoever else happens to be passing through. That is not such a bad thing. If that is what The Artist’s Road has evolved into I’m proud of that. But I also want to extend an invitation to you: If you have written a post that you think I would find of interest, please inform me of it, with a URL, in the comment field of any of my posts. I will not think you are being overly self-promoting; I will be grateful for the head’s up, I will visit, I will read, and I will tweet it. I’m putting some of the work in this relationship on you, which is never a good thing, but I will be grateful for the opportunity for us to converse in your part of the village.
What are your thoughts on our current level of online discourse? What are some of the factors that contribute to it, and is there anything we can do to reverse course?