Sunday’s “06880” post — based on a reader’s request for insights into the Westport and Weston school systems — elicited plenty of reasoned, insightful and well-written responses. The online discussion was thoughtful, nuanced and robust.
Lately, that’s a rarity.
The “Comments” section here too often resembles the Wild West — not Westport.
This rendering of the new Y unleashed a torrent of hostility — much of it anonymous.
Everyone knows that every Westporter has an opinion about everything. Taxes, education, transportation, downtown, infrastructure, recreation, Winslow Park, Baron’s South — if it exists, we’re experts on it.
One of the reasons I started “06880” nearly 4 years ago was to be able to express my opinions about my hometown.
And to give everyone else — those who grew up here, live here now, or somehow wander through this town (or site) — a chance to express theirs, too.
One of the founding tenets of “06880” was that anonymous comments were okay. The First Amendment is a powerful force (though it does not apply to private blogs), and from the beginning readers took advantage of the option for anonymity to toss in their 2 cents’ worth.
Some were private citizens, eager to talk but worried what their friends and neighbors might think. Others were town officials, happy for a chance to chime in without bringing their names and titles into the discussion.
But — month by month, year by year — the thoughtful anonymous commenters have been elbowed aside by trolls. Bozos. Haters.
Troll — or “06880” commenter?
Those are not my descriptions. They’re yours — expressed to me in emails, by readers frustrated that the comments section has devolved into a mud pit of finger-pointing, name-calling and real nastiness.
I have always responded the same way to those emails: “I am a firm believer in the First Amendment. I don’t like what some people say, but I defend their right to say it. I’m keeping the ‘anonymous’ option open.”
Three recent stories, though — two on gun control (right after Newtown, and on Monday), the other on the Y (really, just 3 architectural drawings of the new building) — may be a tipping point.
Scott Smith — who always comments using his real name, alias-sounding though it is — emailed me:
I know you don’t agree, but I think the policy of allowing anonymous posters devalues what has become a vital community resource.
I know full well the online trusim that uninhibited commenting results in an inexorable drive to the lowest common denominators among us. Trolls, crackpots, hatemongers and the uninformed always come to dominate and ultimately drive out the more insightful people who might wish to add their views.
I see it as a shame as I, perhaps naively, wish for more enlightened discussion among a group I willingly choose to be a part of. But who wants to 1) stoop to their level, 2) get attacked personally, or 3) engage in an unfair debate?
Not me, and it seems, increasingly, many other loyal, intelligent denizens of “06880.” Though many of your own items are wonderfully insightful and uplifting, the comments on your blog are all too often just the opposite.
Scott noted that when he argued in the comments section for a policy in which commenters could use pseudonyms only with my blessing, and for a reason, he was attacked by an anonymous person — and his place of employment cited.
He said — and others have, too — that serious commenters no longer contribute their thoughts. They’ve been driven away by the level of vitriol.
Another commenter who believes “06880” is Number One.
Scott acknowledges that “the unbridled free-for-all of anonymous commenting can be fun and liberating. Certainly revealing. I know you like a certain amount of free-spirited rabble-rousing.
“But like most libertarian exercises, the end result is usually excess, anarchy and ultimately negative consequences. Sadly, we are not an altogether enlightened species. Too often, dumb and dumber triumph over good and gooder.”
Scott admits he’ll “probably keep checking in on ‘06880’ every day. There is too much good stuff on it, from you and occasionally from others.” But he may not check the comments.
Or, he says, “I may join the dark side and start posting anonymously. (I bet I would be vicious.)”
Neither solution is appealing, he says. So he turns to me for the answer.
Thanks a lot.
I’m not sure of the solution. Personally approving every comment would take far too much time — and because of the lag, it would kill the real-time conversation that can make a blog like this so valuable.
I could ban certain commenters. Again, more work for me. (And not foolproof.)
I could require names. But I’ve seen blogs that do that, and the discussions on them are about as lively as a Trappist monastery.
This is not how I want to spend my time.
I could sweep through the comments section every so often, deleting those I deem overly nasty, personal, unsubstatiated or whatever. But that too takes time. Plus the comments would already have been seen. Plus it seems way too school-marmish for me.
There may be a way to have commenters register, with their names and emails, before posting. It’s an extra step or 2 for the commenters — though time they could use to compose their thoughts logically, perhaps? — but that’s not foolproof either. It’s not always easy verifying which names are real.
So maybe the burden isn’t on me after all. Maybe it’s on you. Maybe, as we head into a new year, readers’ resolutions should be to call off the attack dogs. To play nice. To use your inside voices.
I want the “comments” section to remain an important part of “06880.” I want this online community to really feel like a community — not a dysfunctional family. I want, above all, to keep allowing people to comment.
But I may not be able to. My new year’s resolution is to not get another email like the one I got from Scott Smith.
Or the many similar ones I got before his, from readers who no longer feel welcome at “06880.”