Let me be clear upfront, this post is totally non-political. I mention this because I’m about to reference the political tsunami of our time – the government shutdown. Like many Americans, once the shutdown started I began reading news articles from more sources than I usually do, and I began to pay a little more attention to the reader responses. Comment scrolls are a relatively new innovation, and they introduce an opportunity for mature, insightful discourse. Needless to say, this opportunity is often squandered, with comment threads reading less mature or insightful than an episode of The Jersey Shore.
And this is too bad – reasoned, cogent discussions can help us understand one another and work toward compromise when we encounter differences. Obamacare is a very hot button topic right now. I would love to read some intelligent discussion that strayed away from the argument that anyone with an opposing viewpoint was mentally handicapped. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find “you’re stupid,” “no, you’re stupid…” to be all the helpful. And yet, a visit to any news website comments sections, regardless how prestigious that news organization, will almost always reveal a non-sensical word-salad brawl that has become the standard on these threads.
So I have to ask – is there a web design solution to this problem? Can we in the design community find a way to organize the comments sections so that trolling, bickering and ad hominem attacks is discouraged? This article asks that exact question. Given how mean-spirited and spiteful the comments I’ve been reading on news sites have become, I really thought about the author’s suggestions.
After thinking it over, I had a few ideas. Perhaps the most promising would be a user-driven democratic system that allows readers to break a comment thread apart into categories. Readers could vote on a comment, designating it (in their opinion) as a either a serious, useful comment, a humorous, useless comment or outright trolling. Comments could then be broken into sub-threads so that, hypothetically, the most useful remarks would be lumped together and the worst bickering would be shuffled off to some trolling hinterland.
Would this work? It’s hard to say. Many news sites are very polarized, and allowing readers to categorize comments as I’ve suggested might just make things worse. For example, MSNBC and Fox News readers (who we assume run liberal and conservative, respectively) might mark any comment with an opposing view as trolling, even if it wasn’t. Representative Boehner and President Obama themselves might leave comments on MSNBC and Fox and be voted as “trolling” by readers simply because of who they are and what they’re saying. So my idea might be unsuccessful, but it feels like designers need to explore options like these. There has to be a way to allow readers to express their voices while maintaining the usefulness of the comment thread.
In the meantime, I’m personally applying the golden rule to any comment I leave. Yes, people are saying some outrageous things. But I don’t really feel obligated to point this out. Instead, I like to make positive remarks about both political parties and the public servants who belong to them, and I like to point out that we’ve resolved serious differenced in the past and built one of the greatest nations in human history despite this…or maybe because of it. And it’s funny, try leaving a totally positive remark in a thread that’s “gone mean” sometime. It can evoke some bizarre responses.
Anyone have ideas on how the comment thread can evolve in order to be more useful? If so, leave a comment, and feel free to be as kind or mean-spirited as you like. I can take it either way. And besides, I have moderator privileges.