Matthew Parris

The wheat and the chaff of online comments

16 May 2013

1:00 PM

16 May 2013

1:00 PM

What’s to be done about the online comments sections in daily newspapers? These (for those estimable Spectator readers who have yet to succumb to tablets, iPhones and computer screens) are the spaces that the online versions of newspapers and magazines provide beneath the articles they publish, for readers to offer (or ‘post’) thoughts of their own. Typically there is no limit to the number of responses that can be made, and a generous limit to the length of each response. Contributors may make multiple incursions onto the site, and answer or comment on each other’s posts. Quite often a kind of conversation gets going. Contributors’ email addresses are available to the newspaper but not on the site. Some use real names, others post under pseudonyms. We authors of our columns are able to respond online to our critics, admirers or interrogators, if we wish.

The approaches of Britain’s daily papers differ but all apply some measure of ‘mediation’ (i.e. censorship) to eliminate obscenity, defamation, or comments so unpleasant as to be unlawful or offensive to most other readers. Typically this is fairly light-touch: tolerant of vituperation, tedious repetition, obvious inaccuracy, and babble of every kind.

There’s something appealingly democratic about the idea. Like those walls that in communist China became the place for subversive posters by anonymous citizens, here (runs the theory) is a place for a thousand flowers to bloom. If a few malodorous weeds appear among the flowers, that’s the price of free speech. In the early days of online journalism, I would have been an enthusiast for total liberty of expression.

But the theory isn’t working. Few of us in daily journalism would pretend otherwise and you do not, in private conversation, encounter huge enthusiasm for the quality of what appears beneath our columns. Some colleagues affect not to read them at all, and certainly never to enter the fray themselves; but on my paper we’re encouraged to — and to respond. I’m glad of that. I was a bit snooty at first, feeling that we get our own crack of the whip in our columns and should not start hogging the readers’ site too, but I was wrong: readers who post appreciate journalists’ responses and like to know we read theirs. I’ve learned a lot from some of these posts and spend a good deal of time ploughing through, sifting wheat from chaff. It’s still worth the effort.

But effort it is. The chaff is in danger of clogging the whole medium. The more time I spend reading commentary on the Times site, the more my fingers itch for our letters page in the newsprint edition. And we Times writers are in one respect the lucky ones. Because our online readers have paid to subscribe to the paper, they are more civilised in what they post. The ‘paywall’ does keep much of the riff-raff out. A horrible example of barbarian incursion into online commentary is the Guardian: dive into the murk beneath any opinion column that challenges the conventional pieties of the left and you will be aghast at the sheer bile. Reading Guardian online posts has significantly put me off the paper: unfair, I know, but if these are the paper’s readers, I recoil from their company.

What’s the problem? Fourfold. First, anonymity brings out many contributors’ most unpleasant side: unpleasantness not mainly towards me but towards public figures or other reader-commentators. I really don’t mind bluntness or brutality, and having made a career out of personal remarks about public figures, I cannot complain if readers do the same. But sheer nastiness unaccompanied by any argument makes a dispiriting and, in the end, boring read. An indicative minority of online posts are like this. The whole virtual space gets a nasty taste.

Second (and not unrelatedly), vituperation tends to provoke its response. A ‘string’ of tit-for-tat posts develops. It can go on for what used to be pages, when we had pages. They’re rarely worth reading.

Third, as with radio phone-in programmes, online commentary attracts a limited band who can dominate the whole exchange. Some of my own ‘regulars’ are thoughtful people — virtual columnists in their own right — to whose posts I turn with interest; others sound like embittered nutters. A representative snapshot of ordinary readers they most undoubtedly are not. If you were to subtract the regulars, you’d lose (I’d guess) a third to a half of the content.

Fourth, a not-insignificant minority of readers’ commentary comes from contributors who don’t really have anything to add. Such exchanges are like conversations overheard on a bus. One is politely grateful for these without wanting to waste time studying them. I’m painfully aware sometimes of myself producing commentary that answers to this description. In such cases I’d value (or ought to) responses from people who know more and understand better.

And this is the nub of it. Is there a way that for the reader for whom time is precious we could editorially filter online commentary, and offer a daily slimmed-down digest of valuable or interesting responses?

Of course there is. It’s called the letters page, in the printed edition of any daily paper. But as the polite rejection slips from letters editors inform unsuccessful would-be correspondents, space is cruelly limited in a newsprint edition. Much that’s valuable will fail to find a place. Online space is less limited but it is not unlimited, because the time and attention of the bulk of our online readers is limited. So isn’t there an opportunity here for an unashamedly selective online letters page which each morning offers what an editor judges to be the (say) 100 most interesting responses to recent columns or reports?

I revere my own paper’s newsprint letters section, but it has to be crème de la crème. Might quality papers consider an online sister-section from which was skimmed the single cream, at least, from the voluminous but mixed offering that easy online access now attracts?

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