When Erick Erickson, editor in chief of the conservative Web site RedState.com, wrote a post that called Cindy Sheehan a “left-wing media whore,” he expected angry feedback.
He didn’t, though, expect commenters at Daily Kos to post his contact information, including his work phone number. Site moderators removed his information, but not before Erickson received a number of ominous phone calls and e-mail messages, including one from a writer who threatened to “rape my wife and unborn child.” He placed a call to the FBI in response, and nothing came of the threats.
“That was first time anything like that happened to me,” he says, “and I was really taken aback, but now it’s almost run of the mill.”
Behold the Commentocracy, where big ideas and rough remarks sit shoulder to shoulder, altogether transforming the nature of the Web and of journalism.
Two weeks ago, Daily Kos posted its 20 millionth comment, most of them, to be sure, at a considerably higher level of discourse than that aimed at Erickson. It is common for front-page posts and “diary” entries to receive hundreds of comments each.
Bill Harnsberger, who writes the Cheers & Jeers column for the site, started off as a commenter. Encouraged by other commenters’ responses to his missives, he began occasionally writing diaries for the site, which does not pay contributors or limit who can contribute. He attracted a following so large that when he lost his job as a copy writer at a marketing company last September, readers got together and within one week collected enough money to pay him to write for Kos full time.
Across the Web, political sites (along with those dedicated to other mainstream distractions like music, culture and sports) are accumulating such a mass of reader responses that it is changing the very nature of the online exchange. Unique commenting communities, cultures and hierarchies have formed at various sites, distinguished from one another by the province’s ideology, protocol and professionalism.
Web sites ranging from the smallest of blogs straight through to The New York Times are struggling to discourage spammers and bomb-throwers without tamping down the larger, productive give-and-take.
Writers and editors have become obsessed with comment tallies (even if many don’t deign to read the comments themselves), which have become a favored, albeit unreliable, barometer for determining editorial success and tapping into the political zeitgeist.
“I’ve seen great blog posts and great articles that get zero comments, and some of it is the writing,” says LATimes.com Executive Editor Meredith Artley. “I also see people try way too hard to get comments. I think it’s nice to engage at every turn but the number of comments you get on a story and blog post isn’t everything. We have to tell a lot of new bloggers that here. They get upset after a month or two that they are only getting a handful of comments a day.”
Kos Editor Susan Gardner recalls her own hesitancy in posting comments when she started out as a reader on the site back in 2003. At the time, she says, there were only 8,000 users who had registered to comment, compared with more than 170,000 today.
Active commenters, though, remain a relatively small and self-selected group. “For every 10 who read,” Gardner continues, “one will sign up as a reader. And of every 10, only one will comment, and of every 10 who do, one will become a diarist.”
A ratings system allows readers to recommend their favorite missives, thus fashioning a commenting meritocracy, or at least hierarchy. “For the most part, what you do see is people are rising purely on merit or at least on popularity,” she said. “They’re giving community what the community wants, whichis different than the outside world.“
Mindful that in the past, certain incendiary or inappropriate comments have been used, most famously by Bill O’Reilly, as though they represented the views of Daily Kos and all its readers, the community has vigilantly taken up the cause of self-policing against online dejecta, be it bigotry, impertinence or spam.
Frequent open threads on the front page offer commenters a high-profile outlet for whatever’s on their minds.
“Commenters aren’t just commenters on our site, like they are on Politico,” says Gardner. "They are creators of content.”
Some sites have used commenters to “crowd source.” Talking Points Memo called upon its community last March to comb through 3,000 pages of Justice Department documents. The information they gleaned eventually became the basis for the ongoing saga of the Bush administration’s politicization of the department.
“Have at it,” TPM’s Deputy Editor Paul Kiel wrote to the site’s devotees. And hundreds did, sifting through nuanced legalese and posting comments singling out eyebrow-raising passages and pages.
“It is harder on sites with thousands” of comments, says Andrew Golis, TPM’s deputy publisher, “but on a niche site like TPM Muckraker, your percentage of good-quality comments is quite high.”
Indeed, other sites have preferred to keep their commenters at arm's length.
“I think that for our current Web user generation,” says Wonkette Editor Ken Layne, “there is very little difference between the content and the comments. To this day, I get e-mails [from readers who] don’t know comments left by someone aren’t actually the story.”
Layne, who half-jokingly refers to commenters as “the Great Enemy of America,” edits a site that uses purposefully ambiguous rules about which comments are encouraged. The approach has had some success in forcing the crazy crowd to take its comments elsewhere.
“Nobody would tolerate if, at the end of 'Meet the Press,' if a bunch of weirdos stormed the studio and started screaming weird racist stuff,” he says. “They’d call the police.”
Mainstream news sites, whose writers have traditionally engaged in less of a back and forth with the commenting public, are now dealing with the big philosophical and small practical questions of top-down moderation.
“On a site like Politico, where it is less of a community and more about the media talking and sharing what it knows," says Patrick Ruffini, who served as webmaster for President Bush's 2004 campaign, "you might have a certain kind of commenter who talks back and often yells back, and it is very messy sometimes.”
At Politico, comments are mostly unmoderated except when abuse is reported. While the first several comments posted about each article appear with it, later comments appear only on a separate forum page.
Regulars with handles like Vlad the Impaler and luckyirishgoddess engage in running dialogues that often veer into free-for-alls where readers and presidential candidates alike are regularly and ruthlessly aspersed.
Here, Barack Obama is “Slick Barry,” and John McCain “Songbird.”
“I don’t like when there is racist stuff or other offensive stuff,” says Politico Editor in Chief John F. Harris. “I think we take that down as a matter of policy when we see it. We probably don’t do as much as we might to get it down as quickly as possible. That’s kind of the nature of our start-up operation, that we always have more holes in the dike than we have thumbs to put there.”
Henry J. Farrell, a political science professor at The George Washington University, applies the economic theory of Gresham’s Law to comment threads. “The crazy generate this slf-reinforcing dynamic,” he says.
At The New York Times, a moderator must approve each comment before it appears online, encouraging germaneness while discouraging the rabble-rousing of “flamers.” The time lag before comments appear discourages highly referential back-and-forths.
On The Caucus, the paper’s main political blog, editors are constantly walking the tightrope between moderation and censorship. “Do you just let some of this up online so people understand that there are a lot of prejudices are out there?” asks Kate Phillips, the Times’ online politics editor. “It is a struggle for all of us to figure out how much do you permit to permeate the space you’ve created that is supposed to be respectful, but not dominated by the PC police.”
At the left-leaning HuffingtonPost.com, which got 600,000 comments last month, the site has a paid staff of 30 full-time and part-time moderators who work in shifts around-the-clock to filter each blog comment. They also “post-moderate” the comments attached to news stories appearing on the site.
While there are certain computer technologies that can flag inappropriate comments based on key words, Huff Post Editor in Chief Arianna Huffington says that it still requires a human eye to keep the comments in line with her site’s posting policies.
“There are certain obvious things we have, certain specific things,” says Huffington. “Conspiracy theories — we don’t allow conspiracy theories. If you thought Sept. 11 was caused by the Bush administration, your comment is not going to appear unless it is a mistake.”
“Once it is clear that everything is moderated,” she said, “a lot of trolls disappear.”
Not surprisingly, there are those bloggers and administrators who have simply tired of the struggle and done away with comments altogether. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder is one, having gotten rid of his comment section, reinstated it and then finally excised it for good.
“I don’t get comfortable censoring speech, even if it is offensive, and there is no need for me to subject myself to those decisions,” Ambinder says.
The ever-increasing volume of comments has had a vaguely anesthetizing effect for readers and writers, newbies and veterans alike.
“I’m not sure what good hundreds of thousands of comments or message boards do for anybody,” says Artley. “I have never known anybody to just read through all of that and think it’s worth revisiting. It’s our job as editors to find a better solution.”
Layne, though, isn’t sure news outlets will keep giving them a forum to talk to one another: “I think it will become a crazy memory that a paper like The New York Times was letting any dingbat come in and write [almost] anything on its website.”