This post is prompted by a discussion recently with a journalist from the excellent ABC program Media Watch about the problems caused potentially by websites (specifically news-oriented sites) that allow users to comment on stories. At issue here, in particular, is the commentary (if one can call it that) to be found at Yahoo! news in Australia. The story went to air this week (“Not all things good in moderation“)
An example not covered by Media Watch is the recent report of the arrest of a man in NSW alleged to have trafficked women for sex. The comments are revealing. One asserts “Thats why these young Thai and Philipino women come here for. They work in brothels while they await some old, dirty, fat, red neck Aussie man to marry them. You see them together everywhere, these girls are young enough to be there daughters or granddaughters. Its disgusting.”. While one reply corrects the poster, pointing out that the women had no choice, another is simply insulting “Aussie men marry Asian women because they are a much better alternative than bitter twisted hags like you”. None of the comments materially add to the debate except insofar as they reveal the limited understanding of people about this challenging issue. The story is not especially detailed, of course, and the comments reflect perhaps the quick n dirty style of internet exchange (few words, excessive opinion, designed to vent or attract attention). Nevertheless, they do not look particularly good, either for the posters or Yahoo. They mostly tell us of how little empathy there is for the people concerned.
Yahoo does utilise the normal tools of social moderation (perhaps crowd-sourced moderation?) in an attempt to manage the quality of contributions. Social moderation means that the users themselves have the opportunity to moderate, through the ‘report abuse’ and thumbs up / down voting buttons. People can comment on the original article or reply to comments, providing the means for debate of inappropriate original comments. However, this is effectively a very weak form of moderation, and it is not transparent since we don’t know what the result of using these tools might be.
Yahoo does, of course, also attempt to manage debate by not allowing comments on some stories (those which initially seem likely to promote ill-considered responses) and does filter crude language. It provides good commenting guidelines (which, one assumes, are rarely read). It also states “Yahoo!7 reserves the right to refuse or remove any comment that does not comply with these guidelines or the Yahoo!7 Terms of Service and to terminate your Yahoo!7 account (including email) for a violation. Yahoo!7 is not responsible or liable in any way for content posted by its users.” These guidelines and after-the-fact correctional tendencies do not appear to inhibit comments such as “slope”, an offensive reference no doubt to the racial characteristics of the abused women concerned.
There are countless examples of this kind of exchange through the Yahoo website. That site’s approach stands in constrast to, for example, the Courier Mail (and many other such sites). Here, when a comment is left, it is moderated before publication. And, upon submission of the comment, one is advised: “Please note that we are not able to publish all the comments that we receive, and that we may edit some comments to ensure their suitability for publishing. Feedback will be rejected if it does not add to a debate, or is a purely personal attack, or is offensive, repetitious, illegal or meaningless, or contains clear errors of fact. Although we try to run feedback just as it is received, we reserve the right to edit or delete any and all material ”
One of the reasons for this difference is, of course, that news organisations (such as News Limited, the publishers of the Courier Mail), have a long tradition of accepting content from uses (letters) and publishing a small selection; it is part of their culture to edit (whether the words of staff or readers or news makers). Yahoo is not (despite its efforts) a true media company – it is a fused media-internet company which still has a significant cultural bias towards the less intermediated modes of communication found online.
However, it is also the case that any kind of interaction with Yahoo requires you to register with the site – logging in with their Yahoo ID (unlike the Courier Mail where an email address needs to be supplied, only). This is, essentially, the key business aspect. While advertising displaya at Yahoo generates revenue, much more is generated through the process of creating a network of users about whom Yahoo knows things (through their profiles) and which enables them to target adverts to particular users. Furthermore, the need to log in can make users return to an existing identity with Yahoo and keep using it. Therefore, the freedom of commentary on Yahoo is both a reflection of its origins as an Internet company and its specific business models of the present.
The two-way communication capacity of the Internet is one of the most significant advantages of the web over traditional media forms. It is commonplace for most websites that distribute news or similar content to also enable readers to comment on these stories. In effect, comments allow users to conduct a distributed conversation with each other and other readers. Commenting of this kind allows different views to emerge; it can also enable readers to contribute to the quality of the news reported as well.
From a business perspective, this interaction is crucial, because it keeps readers at the website longer, keeps them coming back, and thus increases the attention being paid to a particular site. This attention translates into increased advertising revenue for commercial news organisations. Where users have to register to comment, or provide an email address, this can also create business opportunities as well.
However, commenting can be hard to manage. Some users of the web react in simplistic ways to what they read, or use the commenting feature as an opportunity for airing their views in ways that do not add anything useful to public debate. While seeking to improve the quality of news communication, or to increase revenue, companies must be careful to manage the risks. Hate speech, abuse, defamatory remarks, and plain old stupid comments can all make the commenting feature a nightmare. It can detract from the quality of what was originally presented. There are risks of litigation or even prosecution where comments from users breach laws.
Comment moderation is the only way to ensure that comments actually add something and do it safely. But there are several disadvantages. First, it is expensive and time consuming for someone to read through and approve comments manually. Second, people don’t like to wait before seeing their comments appear – thus people may not be bothered to comment if it is not immediately published. Third, moderation can make it more likely that a website can be sued for the content that appears in comments because the site cannot claim to be disinterested. Most of all, comment moderation can be perceived as a form of censorship or manipulation. While some technological solutions automate aspects of the moderation process, in most cases, only human moderation will work. I recently left a thoughtful comment on a story at the Courier Mail site which has still not been published: why would I bother to do this again if I don’t know why the first post was not published. The lack of feedback makes moderation a challenge (note, for example, the feedback provided on the Media Watch site!)
A free for all, where any comment is published immediately best exemplifies the general nature of the Internet – think of twitter and facebook and how instantaneous, unmoderated communication is the norm. And there are some advantages to this because it enables public debate. The Internet of this kind relies on users to be astute and active readers – ignoring rubbish, critiquing nonsense comments, and so on. Equally, while there may be objectionable discussions online, we get to see them and we can’t ignore what they say about our society.
Ultimately, however, the question is not about the general nature of the Internet. News sites are a specific form of Internet communication and can set their own rules. Indeed, they can demonstrate their difference, and perhaps improve their attractiveness to readers, by the way they offer a space for considered and informed debate which is not a free-for-all. Comment moderation, even though timeconsuming, may be part of the new ways in which journalism and news operate. Sites that want to increase interaction and build user-generated content along with their own content will need to redefine ‘news’ – it is no longer communicated from the few to the many, but is co-created, a partnership between writers and their audiences. Such sites may prosper precisely because they require the audience to invest a little more time and effort in commenting.
While the content of the comments is, in many cases, quite offensive to some, we should be wary about judging it by the standards of organised and official media communication. It is, to be frank, quite similar to what people might say to one another in face to face situations – socialising, gossiping, and so on. What differs is that this quite intimate form of speech (which normally we know nothing about) is now found online and any one can read it. IT is the change in context, from personal / private to public / visible, which makes it offensive, not the speech itself (which goes on all the time). What comments on news sites demonstrates is that the Internet has radically transformed the relationship between public and private – we can’t stop this, but we must learn better how to deal with it.