The end of user participation — comments on news sites. What’s next?

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Al Jazeera has disabled its comment section. Its reasons are not unfamiliar to many publishers, stating:

… the comments section was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually non-existent.

Other popular sites have had to suspend their comments too, such as: Reuters, The WeekPopular Science, Mic, Recode, The Verge, and USA Today’s FTW. Some, albeit it for brief periods trying to work out how to set standards in readers’ responses.

The idea of opening up articles for comments was supposed to yield journalism as a conversation — the reader participation so fancifully extended from The ClueTrain Manifesto.

Famously, in his ground breaking book We Media published in 2004 when Facebook was in its college-incubatory stage, there was no YouTube, and society forced by the weight of civility meant transgressors largely shied away from public airings, author Dan Gillmor said what no journalist would rarely publicly admit to: “his audience knew more than him”.

A piquant way of expressing this was the ‘newish’ comment section — the transition point from web 1.0 static text, to web 2.0 reactive, around 2001 where readers could ‘discuss’ with the journalist and others their points et al. It was a far cry from 1995 when newspapers first came online, and as I introduced this segment on London’s cable 24 hour news service, The Times had a couple of thousand subscribers and no room place yet for consumers’ comments.

Comments wasn’t an entirely novel idea. Newspapers had been doing it for years. And phone-ins on occasion proved to be powerful weapon against the political elite as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discovered when she was drubbed by a viewer about the Falkland War.

History is rarely dull. Back in the 1920s as the BBC, then as a company, was beginning to shape its destiny with an aphorism lifted from an American broadcaster David Sarnoff, ‘to educate, inform and entertain’, it had the opportunity of a two way ( radio) conversation with its audience.

Would John Reith the BBC’s Director General have any of it? Reith’s response was the audience were not equipped with sufficient mental faculties to know what to do with a synchronous broadcast system.

Hence, broadcasting became a one way street. Two-way radio became the domain of the police, truckers and amateur sleuths. Almost 100 years later many publishers are finding out to their cost, what it’s like to give everyone the power to express their views. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating I’m against it. I’m merely laying out what could and has become a consequence of giving everyone, without checks, a loaded gun (physically and metaphorically). Clearly this last statement has a cultural bearing.

And perhaps as an analogy and parallel with ridding a street of crime, by clamping down on undesirables, the result is the next borough inhabits the problem. Today we witness how social media is a universe, a repository for the good, the bad and the down right offensive.

What’s next then? A slew of companies shut down their comments, with no impact on their bottom line? Hence ending this practice. Otherwise, link users online to more rigorous identity checks: social security, passport, or national insurance numbers. In time, perhaps via genetic fingerprinting that will happen. That still won’t stop those who are outrightly and shamelessly obnoxious from airing their views.

Last week in the annual Mactaggart Lecture, a speech largely aimed at the UK’s media audience, which sets the tone for the years aheads, UK venerable broadcaster UK news anchor Jon Snow captured the alt side of social media.

But the other side of the issue — the dark, cancerous side — Facebook enabled the story: “Pope endorses Trump for President”. That engaged more than a million people during the US Elections. That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale.

It’s not just comments, but the peddling of fake stories, for which Snow said Facebook takes no moral responsibility. It’s not that people naturally inherit a spectrum of maligned moral and ethical codes online. That much dates back to the beginning of human life itself. It is that, with little barriers to spread their views, the dregs of society see how easy it is to share their putrid opinions and today, with connectivity the marker against moral currency, that appears alright.

Perhaps, as history has shown, a state of equilibrium will arrive — a reversion to a time where a 21st century solution shuts out those who fill their surroundings with hate or can’t hold a civil conversation without perverting discourse. After DW Griffith’s epochal and racist film Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, overt racism and white hoods spiked in the US before the compass swung the other way.

Maybe in less than five years time, the hegemony held by current social media will have dissipated. The option to hear what people have to say quelled in a way not yet devised? No media entity has been able to hold court exclusively for themselves, and time is the arbiter here. In the meantime, it would not surprise me in the least to see more networks disable their comments. The chutzpah for feedback loops may be in stasis, at least for a while.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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