Last year, a 20-year old undocumented Mexican worker fell off a Chicago roof and broke his neck. After being deported as a paraplegic, the story reported he died in an Oaxacan hospital that lacked sufficient equipment.
On one side, Huffington Post commenter medicim wrote, “Such a beautiful man, what a tragedy.” On the other, lesdavi89: “Finish the fence already.”
If you want to see humanity at its worst, goes an oft-repeated Internet phrase, just scroll down to the comments section.
Uninhibited by social norms, Internet anonymity provides a pedestal for beliefs of all shades. From behind pseudonyms, freedom of speech quickly becomes a free-forall—often to the bewilderment of readers and authors alike.
With this freedom, discussions tend to swerve downwards—towards racist taunts, hateful bigotry, and schoolyard logic. This has caused more than a few people to ponder: are we all that good when left free to speak?
It’s not as bleak as the comments make it sometimes appear. Many “trolls”—a unique Internet by-product—seek only to get commenters engaged or enraged. Like bullies, they keep an eye out for the weak or emotional on the threads, then push others’ buttons until they explode—then keep pushing some more, just for “lulz”.
Threads that get led to the dark side leave editors and moderators with a tough decision: create rules to curtail supposedly free forums for discussion or let people say what they will, no matter how offensive or hateful. It’s a big job. Huffington Post, for example, has 30 full-time moderators who handle more than 70 million comments each year.
Of course, thousands of websites and articles never have to consider this. In many forums, article authors and other commenters defend, adopt, or consider criticisms for future work in helpful debates.
This, says Christy Canida, brings out “real people with real things to say”—perhaps something closer to what “the Internet will set us free” proponents envisioned before endless porn and Reddit.
Canida manages the community of makers at Instructables. Back-and-forths in their comment sections offer advice on building everything from dog wheelchairs to pinhole cameras. Debates, she says, are generally positive without using a moderator.
Canida believes that this is not a question of telling people what they can’t say or deleting comments that a moderator doesn’t like. She says it’s about defining the purpose of an online community.
Broader sites like 4chan—where pretty much any rant or raunchy photo (besides kiddy porn) is fair game—are important venues to speak about literally anything. But this type of freedom is less relevant to online communities with a self-defined interest in furthering a particular conversation. Such communities, Canida says, naturally weed out agitators. “Once you remove the noise and amplify positive signals, people are more likely to step in with helpful comments.”
This is noticeably easier when the topic is hands-on building, rather than immigration or gay marriage. But the idea is transferable: shape the parameters of the debate and the community will tend to stay on course.
Start-up platforms like Two Sides and urtak are accelerating the transfer. Billing themselves as intelligent forums for sticky issues, they aim to build an audience willing to hear the other side, while arguing their own—a place to speak freely but with structure.
This follows bigger sites like The Economist and the New York Times, who—following reader interest in engaging in online discussions (both have active comments sections)—now run debate forums. Economist Debates brings in experts on each side, allowing the online audience to ask questions and vote on the stance or rebuttal.New York Times’s Room for Debate brings in outsides experts on a timely news topic. Like the main Times site, readers can vote comments up or down, allowing participants to shape the resulting debate in real time.
Even the Huffington Post—whose sensational articles have tended to encourage the breed of comments that urge out humanity’s worst—has seen enriched discussion as of late. In a recent interview with Poynter, HuffPo’s chief moderator Justin Isaf said that 70 percent of all comments are replies to other commenters. Yes, hate speech enters their threads. But, with readers now able to vote for their favorite HuffPo personalities in the comments, preference is given to people with a proven tendency to further discussions.
What these sites have realized is that it’s nearly impossible to patrol these informal forums with hard rules. Instead, they provide guidelines and mechanisms for the crowd to self-moderate. It used to be that commenters could only “flag” each other’s notes for moderator review—akin to calling the cops. Today, algorithms handle the workload: top-voted comments bump to the top, and the least popular ones eventually disappear from view. Polling systems, for example at Urtak and the Economist, aggregate the sentiment of the community.
None of this means we have seen the end of jmquick69’s tendency to grace an article about dining with a diatribe against immigrants. The ability to say things one might not in person will always attract big voices behind hidden names. But sites with specified values have started to make people consider their choice of words when they hear the following: comments welcome. And in doing so, are perhaps shaping a new style of Internet freedom.