Internet comments: The experiment that failed

Back in the infancy of the Internet, the experts told us it would give the voiceless a voice, empowering people in a way we can’t imagine.

We blew the chance.

This was illustrated yesterday, when the Star Tribune, home of some of the most vile commenters ever to be empowered, posted this notice on each of its story pages.


The cynic says it’s a start. The trolls have mostly chased thoughtful dialog from the comments sections and news organizations like the Star Tribune have been more than derelict in their duty with a “in the name of free speech”, anything goes attitude toward steering their conversations.

Comments are editorial content, too, but many news organizations are too unwilling to commit resources to setting a standard of intelligence and decency in directing its conversations. And many people have lost the ability to make a valid point intelligently. And in the absence of any participation by journalists, commenters often go off the rails because no one is listening.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. But now it probably does. There’s no saving the “comments section” without a sudden infusion of informed, intelligent, rational, and articulate people. But, really, why would they bother to subject themselves to the trouble?

If anyone needed needed confirmation of this — and really, who on earth could possibly need confirmation of this? — last Saturday’s This American Life provided a shocking and pathetic one.

It focused its hour on the people who should have never been empowered in the first place, people who should have never been given a louder voice than the unsubstantive one they already had. Trolls.

Here, listen for yourself. The odds are you won’t last 15 minutes.

It’s hard to imagine CenturyLink getting many calls — except from the very people who created the cesspool from which the company is trying to shield its customers — protesting the outage.

But regardless of the reason for it, what’s the point in wanting comments back? It was a nice experiment. It was a failure.

Related: The Dark Psychology of the Sexist Internet Commenter (The Atlantic).

Internet comment credibility study: Vaccine decisions influenced by online discussion. (Slate).

Related cable: CenturyLink’s much-hyped Twin Cities 1-gig broadband rollout is slow in coming (Pioneer Press)

  • Veronica

    Remember when you told us to go back to the beginning of NewsCut and read it from the beginning? One of your first posts was about the possibilities of comment sections.

  • John

    I like to think that while the experiment as a whole may have failed, certain corners of the internet have well edited, thoughful discussion going on. So, maybe not. . . maybe the large, wild west style, unedited comment sections have failed (they have), but variations on the experiment have succeeded.

    I hold this blog up as one example of that success. I’ve had several good conversations here, some with people I didn’t agree with, but it was civil, people made good points, and largely stayed on topic. Namecalling, threats, and off topic discussions are quickly edited away (I’ve been edited away myself a few times when I made bad calls and strayed off topic or resorted to stupid comments that I know better than to post).

  • Jack

    Bob – you have done an excellent job of keeping this site civil. This is the only site where I feel I can express my opinion without getting ripped to ribbons.

    Thanks for keeping this site safe and thought-provoking!

  • davehoug

    My 2 guides:

    A) I do not discuss motives because I barely understand my own and I have trouble with my wife’s, much less somebody I never met.

    B) I do not use labels because they translate into I like or I don’t like and don’t advance the discussion.

    I have not been flamed. I have also put my email address out there for continued discussion. Sadly only 3 have written directly to me. It does make a difference NOT hiding and being glad to discuss my comments with anyone.

  • davehoug

    Question to authors: Does being able to read reaction make writing a more interesting job? Sure a lot of feedback is anger, but would somebody who put effort into a story prefer to never hear or to be able to “talk” to readers????

  • Bark

    I’ve read that many news orgs keep their horrible comment sections for the page views. If you write something you often come back to see who replied!

    (I’ll be back in a half hour)

    • That brings up an interesting question. Whether the changing metrics of the Internet will usher out the commenting areas.

      Page views can be generated by multiple visits to a site, for sure, but if the metrics change — and I think they are — to “unique impressions” or “unique page views,” then there’s little value in it since multiple views of a page still count as only 1 impression.

      But, yes, you properly bring up an underlying problem in the philosophy of websites which is the content is not considered content of value beyond its value as page views. It ignores the reality that, done well, the additional perspective of informed people IS valuable content merely for the content itself.

      • Bark

        I didn’t have to check back. I was notified of your reply by email and just needed to click to get back in on the conversation!

        One way to get more unique page views is to have the user click on another suggested article. The more times you visit the same page, the more likely you are to check out other articles suggested on that page, right?

  • jon

    Upsetting if true…
    Not because comments are such a great source of information (though some times entertainment) but because I don’t appreciate my ISP doing something more than delivering the internet… Part of the reason I left comcast was because of their “Domain helper service” which I opted out of, and then changed my DNS server open DNS (there was other non-sense like collections calls for a $0 balance, and upgrading the modem for no apparent reason, also the whole “I’m ready!’ campaign for digital tv where they then made every one who they told was ready not ready 3 months later.)

    If I can validate on my own (not that I don’t trust the star trib or news cut, but if it’s only some people that are effected (spam bots?) then that changes things) I’ll be calling, and requesting a conversation on the topic of censorship… unfortunately I don’t have much recourse for a different internet provider… there are only two available and both seem to feel it’s their right to throttle traffic (illegally) and redirect my requests to some place that I didn’t want them to go to…

    I guess I could always setup TOR for my entire home network… seems like an increasingly good idea any how with all the other people watching my internet traffic…

    • It may well be a technical issue masquerading as a feature.

      I notice more apps — the Star Tribune’s and also MPR’s — don’t allow Disqus to be pulled into the page. At least in MPR’s case, I know this to be a technical issue that’s “on the list” to be addressed. I’m guessing it won’t be.

  • Jack

    “And many people have lost the ability to make a valid point intelligently. ”

    How so? If you are making a valid point, how can any snarky comment take away it’s value? Right?

    “And in the absence of any participation by journalists, commenters often go off the rails because no one is listening.”
    I wasn’t aware that journalists announce themselves as *journalists* when posting. I suspect that what is deemed trolling may be valid points shedding light on something that should be kept under the rug.
    Bob, or nominal Bob, whoever wrote this, I think you need to define trolling. One persons trolling may be another body’s valid point; it’s all about perspective. Make sense?

    • Jack

      I meant to say “..what is deemed trolling may be valid points shedding light on something that OTHERS feel should be kept secret out of public eye.

    • No, it doesn’t, really.

      Here’s an example. When my father in law died — he was a fairly prominent person back in the Berkshires — a comment on his front page story said, “Good, may he be the first of many Republicans to die.”

      I’m sure some people thought from their perspective that was a valid point, in the same way some of the kids in the back of the class in school thought firing a spit ball was a valid expenditure of energy.

      Now a commenter COULD have added some valuable information that adds to the story rather than just spewing verbal diarrhea about what he/she THINKS… that is to say: share what you KNOW.

      • Jack

        “Good, may he be the first of many Republicans to die.”
        Well that’s just rude, Bob and not a very good example. Yes those comments should be deleted. How would that hinder someone else from posting?

        • BJ

          I think that is a common example.

          • Jack

            ok that was funny too.

  • Erik Petersen

    There ought to be credulity, for technical, legal, and commercial reasons, that the absence of the Star Tribune’s commenting threads is because CenturyLink made an
    editorial decision to filter them out of their ISP traffic.

    Architecturally I can’t think of many reasons at all that CenturyLink would have ability to impact the Strib’s comment threads. If CenturyLink is the Strib’s internet host, figure maybe that the ‘blocking’ is not an editorial decision but the unintended consequence of a software change that disabled the commenting application engine. The change done because of malware / backdoor instruction considerations.

    I really doubt it’s a reaction to trolls.

  • Jim

    I think you should give a bit more credit to the Star Tribune. Their comments are very, very heavily moderated. The problem really is just a handful of completely off the wall (and how can I say this nicely, from what I can tell out-state angry old conservatives 🙂 ) who have nothing to do day in and day out but spout the same constantly misproven statements over and over and over. They just overwhelm the moderators, who seem to just remove the obviously worst and then pick at random the other comments that get posted.
    The Star Tribune comments sections have been almost (almost) civil since most of those commenters have been blocked, although a few remain.
    But it isn’t right that an ISP should do the censoring. I pay them for open access to the web. Better would be the Star Tribune to use the blocking feature of the livefire comments software they use and block the most disruptive users themselves. The Star Tribune does have the right to moderate its own, free forums.

  • Lurker

    The last time the subject of commenting came up on this blog, I think someone linked to a WashPost reference that I read with interest.
    A few thoughts:
    I agree that NewsCut’s comments section is kept to a higher standard than many.
    I’m not generally a participant in comment sections.
    I am not an older white male.
    I don’t have the kind of job or time that allows me to be on discussion boards constantly during the day, which seems to be when most of the activity takes place.
    I don’t have a non-specific name, and therefore would never attach my real name to any public Internet comment that my employer or whoever might be able to look up and cross-link (in other words it’s not just the drunk Facebook photos).
    I do put some effort into maintaining my online profile.
    I remember when “your personal information does not go on the Internet” was a general rule, told to me by people older than myself.
    I am not sure how much I stand to gain from participating in comment sections (there are so many!), in fact it seems like I stand to lose control over accuracy of my online profile at various levels, via unpaid digital-trail profiling/labelling.
    I don’t have much interest in saying the same things over and over.
    I’d sooner write a targeted on-topic pseudonymous Letter to the Editor.
    There are plenty of ways to generate content and provide feedback online. I’m not sure why I should be doing it for free, on display and archived “forever”. Even if others are.
    The Internet is bigger than any comments section. The world is bigger than any Internet. I’m not sure that I’ll go to my grave thinking “I should have spent more time participating in a comments section”.

  • Rich in Duluth

    Two things bother me about this.

    First, this is another example of a noisy, impolite few being allowed to control the speech of the relatively reasonable many. So, in the name of what…civility, free speech is being shut down?

    Second, here we have a for-profit, corporation controlling speech. This is a good reason for a free and open internet.

    I think the “voiceless” still get the chance to voice their opinions and make valuable and thoughtful contributions to the issues of the day, despite the noise of the trolls. CenturyLink should not be allowed to control free speech on the internet. That control should be in the hands of the StarTrib, MPR, or whoever has editorial control over a given website.

    Thank you, Bob, for a very well moderated, interesting, and thought provoking page.

  • KTN

    Progressive liberal here, and in that role I seek out what the other side is thinking. NRO, Powerline, NYT(hehe). I believe it is important for me to better understand opposing arguments, and not just live my life in an echo chamber. I read the comments, and like we all know, it only takes a couple of milliseconds for the “conversation” to sink to new lows (oh that happens on liberal sites too). I tend to frequent law blogs (Volokh, Concurring Opinions, Balkinizations) where the comments are generally civil – but they are at the same time, very forceful too. I do however, look at the comments at the Strib, or Huffpost just to see what evil lurks out in the world – and man, I am never disappointed, saddened, but never surprised.
    When I want to sink into the snark, I post a comment at the Strib, and then come here and be civil – so thanks for having a place where we can have (and have had) many good discussions about many things.

  • It’s a technical issue involving livefyre, who manages the commenting system for the Star Tribune and apparently was not providing sufficient protection for their servers so CenturyLink blocked them.

    • Erik Petersen

      That’s what I said (more or less), what do I win.

      • John O.

        I think I still have an old CD floating around somewhere….

        • Check under a beverage on an end table.

          • John O.

            I think it is in a box that also contains Windows 95 installation diskettes.

  • Jim

    It looks like CenturyLink must have been flooded with calls this morning since the Strib posted CenturyLink’s call center number on each comment page. Comments are once again available to all.
    Actually it was kind of nice while it lasted.
    I’m hoping that the Strib learned a lesson and starts blocking the worst offenders themselves.

    • Dave

      The few times I have left comments on that site, they’ve been moderated out of existence and do not appear. So yes, they do have a moderator; it’s just a bad moderator.

      • Ben

        How does one know his comment was moderated out? Is there some technical knowledge needed to confirm this happened as opposed to the comment just not posting for some other glitch? Do you get an email from the moderator telling you that your comment was removed?

        • Jim

          I suppose there could be some technical glitch occasionally. However, what happens quite frequently is that the post goes away without being approved, the poster then rewrites it hoping to remove whatever happened to offend the Mod. And they keep doing that until the mod accepts it, or they give up. If you copy and paste and repost the same comment right after it’s deleted, it will be deleted again. You can also post a comment that is addressed to the Mod. Those mostly get deleted once the Mod reads them. There is definitely a human being making those decisions.
          One other thing the Strib could do is actually have the Mods participate. Often you have no idea why they denied a particular post. LiveFyre allows the Mod to identify themselves when they post. Participating would help control the discussion.

          • The people who should be participating are the reporters of the story — at least initially. They can answer questions and provide needed background and information.

            It’s also what scares the hell out of reporters.

          • Jim

            On the Star Tribune? My wife used to occasionally write for the Strib. She mentioned that she drove a VW Beetle. She saw a few negative comments about not driving an American-made car. Her Editor, though, told her that they were deleting most posts. They’d have to get really thick-skinned reporters.
            Those I feel the most empathy for though are the subject of articles. Like when it was reported that Rush Limbaugh called Rebekah Erler a “Democratic Operative” and the readers took her letter to Obama to mean she was asking for government help in raising her family (I’ve not seen the letter, but nothing in the article implied that she asked for anything.) The people in the commentary tore her to shreds. I really hope she understood just how vicious the trolls there are, especially when it comes to anything Obama.

    • Erik Petersen

      What lesson are they to embrace about their trolling moderation in this episode that was a technical outage and not one that was a response to trolling?

      • Jim

        Most of those who were blocked were the worst trolls, primarily I believe due to CenturyLinks coverage area, and where those trolls tend to live. The Strib does try to moderate, but the nonsense being posted day in and day out by a handful of people–and the responses they inevitably elicit–often overwhelms the moderators. One poster in particular is able to keep, and has kept, a comment section going all by himself with his ridiculous comments. It’s actually been a fairly civil place during the outage.
        Once they discover they can get back on now, the relative civility will end, and the Strib will be back to being “home of some of the most vile commenters ever to be empowered.”
        LiveFyre does have the ability to block an IP address, and I don’t think
        most of the worst offenders would be technically knowledgeable enough
        to know how to reset their IP, or get around such a block. The Strib should block the worst offenders altogether. They’d also likely save a bunch on moderator costs as the number of posts would drop dramatically.

        • Dave

          They wouldn’t dare block the worst people, because those are the ones continually hitting F5 on star tribune’s page. It is not difficult to do web analytics.

          Ooh, user1 is a bigtime troll. Hey look, he has an Elk River comcast IP. But he also views our page 100 times a day. Should we block him?

        • Erik Petersen

          It had nothing to do with trolls. The comment application with its text entry field is a venue by which instructions are given to servers. Normally, mere thread comments but the capability exists for others. Centurylink was blocking the livefyre IP because they judged that venue inadequately secure to prevent the entry of malicious instructions.

          • Jim

            I didn’t say they were intentionally blocking trolls. I am saying that it was actually pretty nice that the worst trolls tended to be the ones that got blocked, regardless of the reason.

  • amycrea

    Interestingly, on the Current’s Coffee Break post, there are several people complaining that their posts about a certain DJ who was just fired are being blocked.

  • Dave

    You wanna see a cesspool of comments, check out KARE-TV’s facebook page. holy crap. I don’t know how I managed to like their page, but I recently unliked it. Extremely racist, homophobic, ignorant people. KARE does nothing about it.

    • Ben

      Have you ever checked out KSTP? It has to be at least as bad.

  • Jim G

    I have an alternative headline for this page.

    Internet comments: The experiment that succeeded on NewsCut.

    You have created an unique community of contributors; diverse citizens actually sharing their views without resorting to name calling and casting aspersions on each others’ genealogy. It just goes to show that to change behavior it’s important to have a good model. Thanks for being that role-model for this community.

    • Maybe. But , still women have indicated they’re afraid to post. That doesn’t give me a good feeling.

      But your thoughtfulness means a lot.

      • Jim G

        If it means anything… sometimes an older…white haired… male, is afraid to post also. You’ve got some pretty smart contributors that keep me on my toes. The water is fine, you just have to get use to it.

  • Anna

    News Flash:

    CenturyLink started out as a very small telephone company in—are you ready?—Monroe, Louisiana and its main headquarters are still there.

    It’s original name was Century Telephone and back in the early 1980’s it was an obscure company serving Southeastern and Northeastern Louisiana.

    It expanded its services to the Western Wisconsin region, namely La Crosse County and its nearby environs and became Century-Tel.

    In the late 2000’s, it acquired Qwest Communications and then became CenturyLink.

    Did you expect anything different from a company headquartered in the Bible Belt of Louisiana, a strongly “Red” state with a governor who thinks he can be the next POTUS?

    • Erik Petersen

      Is this satire? It was a technical outage.