A Call For Civil Discource on the Net

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Nov 05, 2007 11:53 AM
There has been a lot of talk lately about what to allow (or not allow) on blogs.  The other week, for example, a mild controversy touched-off regarding whether or not RedState should allow Ron Paul supporters to comment on their site ...

This week, The New York Times announced they are now allowing comments on their news stories, and they have hired four part-time staffers to monitor them.

Both examples point to the fact that there are pros and cons associated with having a thriving blog "community."  And each site will have to determine what is appropriate and profitable for them.

Personally, I have become less and less enamored of comments over the recent years.  In the past, I would often read -- and sometimes post -- comments.  My goal was to take advantage of the "wisdom of crowds," as well as to foster a dialogue (rather than a monologue) in the conservative blogosphere.  But for the last several months, I have stopped looking at comments, almost altogether.  This is due to the fact that many comments (not just here, but on most sites) are uncivil, rarely add anything to the debate, and are often posted by people hiding behind aliases.  In short, it's no longer worth my time.

But I'm less concerned about how comments affect writers, such as myself, than how they affect the audience.  Recently, two incidents have made me more and more aware that this 21st century obsession with allowing everyone to comment on everything is actually punishing the majority of the audience.

Last week, I went to see alt-country musician Ryan Adams.  Adams is famous for being both a brilliant songwriter and performer, as well as for attracting annoying fans who heckle him during the extended breaks in between songs. 

While Adams tends to overreact to the hecklers, the truth is that it's the fan who paid $50 to hear Adams' music who loses out.

Another example occurred just this morning.  I was riding to work listening to Politico's Jonathan Martin being interviewed on CSPAN.  I'm an admirer of Martin and his political knowledge, so I was very interested in his answers to the legitimate questions being posed by the interviewer.  I was much less interested to hear the diatribes from CSPAN callers on the "Republican line" who constantly want to talk about Vince Foster, etc. 

As you might imagine, there were plenty of these CSPAN callers -- and most of them had comments rather than questions.

Here's the thing: People aren't tuning in to CSPAN to listen to "Bill from Bismarck on the Republican line" any more than they are going to a Ryan Adams concert to hear a drunk heckler request "Free Bird" for the fifth time, any more than they are reading this blog to get the inane musings of LiberalGuy102 ...

In truth, most two-way communication in the modern world is intended to make commenters/callers/hecklers feel like they are part of the debate.  In most cases, they are not. 

I'd love to encourage real debate and discussion in the blogosphere.  I just wish the discourse were more civil.  My guess is that many commenters feel the same way as I do.

The New York Times decision to allow moderated comments strikes me as a fair balance between allowing no discussion, and allowing the inmates to run the asylum.  Talk radio, after all, has call screeners to effectively screen-out the wackos.  Why shouldn't a website?