the Comment Wars

From Politico on July 23, 2008:

Across the Web, political sites (along with those dedicated to other mainstream distractions like music, culture and sports) are accumulating such a mass of reader responses that it is changing the very nature of the online exchange. Unique commenting communities, cultures and hierarchies have formed at various sites, distinguished from one another by the province’s ideology, protocol and professionalism.

There seems to be a tension between promoting individual expression and fostering a community in these kinds of environments.

Web sites ranging from the smallest of blogs straight through to The New York Times are struggling to discourage spammers and bomb-throwers without tamping down the larger, productive give-and-take.

The issue of “real world” standards of conduct and how very different the online world can be is highlighted by the quotes from Ken Layne, Managing Editor of Wonkette:

Layne, who half-jokingly refers to commenters as “the Great Enemy of America,” edits a site that uses purposefully ambiguous rules about which comments are encouraged. The approach has had some success in forcing the crazy crowd to take its comments elsewhere.

“Nobody would tolerate if, at the end of ‘Meet the Press,’ if a bunch of weirdos stormed the studio and started screaming weird racist stuff,” he says. “They’d call the police.”

The question of whether unrestricted forums can produce effective learning environments is also raised:

… Henry J. Farrell, a political science professor at The George Washington University, applies the economic theory of Gresham’s Law to comment threads. “The crazy generate this self-reinforcing dynamic,” he says.

… “I’m not sure what good hundreds of thousands of comments or message boards do for anybody,” says Artley. “I have never known anybody to just read through all of that and think it’s worth revisiting. It’s our job as editors to find a better solution.”

Layne, though, isn’t sure news outlets will keep giving them a forum to talk to one another: “I think it will become a crazy memory that a paper like The New York Times was letting any dingbat come in and write [almost] anything on its website.”

Schools have the upper hand on facilitating an effective online community because the online world is the “real world” at an academic site.  There is little anonymous cover available and violations of school policy can result in real consequences.

Interacting in the online world can be a bit like attending a masquerade ball.  You can wear a mask to the party, and it is often considered a common sense precaution to avoid giving out personal information.  In a school environment, that feature is not available.

What happens in the online school environment is more “real” than the anonymous forums, and the chances of developing healthy and productive communities seems that much greater because of it.

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