Verdict: Internet is Not a Medium for Thoughtful, Civil Discourse

Civil Beat announced their closing down their comments section. What’s interesting is that they’ve tried different software/methods, but none have really lead to civil place for thoughtful discussion. This jibes with my experience on a variety of different comment sections and discussion boards online over a twenty year period. (The Atlantic also recently shut down their comments section.) To be clear, thoughtful, civil discourse is possible on the internet–I have definitely participated in this–but it is very rare, the exception to the rule. This is really disappointing and sad to me, because I expected that the internet would provide more opportunities for this type of discourse. My sense is that this building a place where this type of discourse is the norm is too costly, and those looking for this type of discourse have to go to places where the majority of conversation turns the site into a cesspool.

(One question. Both Civil Beat and The Atlantic are keeping FB discussions alive. Are discussions more thoughtful and civil there?)

28 thoughts on “Verdict: Internet is Not a Medium for Thoughtful, Civil Discourse

  1. Not on hot-button issues they’re not. That’s an interesting approach; they’re probably doing it just to keep some distance while taking advantage of FB’s reach and connectivity.

    You’re really not going to care, but the cooking blogs (the good ones) tend to have excellent comments sections as well. I wonder if what you want can be found in special interest websites.

  2. I’m assuming the FB discussions are hosted by Civil Beat and The Atlantic. I don’t get why having the hosting the discussion on FB would be more civil and thoughtful than hosting it at their sites. Wouldn’t the same people participate in both? Or does FB have a (unitentional) filtering effect?

    I wonder if what you want can be found in special interest websites.

    I’ve participated in sites specifically for movies, jazz, and football. Wouldn’t that qualify?

  3. FB has a must-use-your-real-identity rule, so many people think comments are more responsible since you can’t hide behind an alias. But some people are just a-holes and don’t care who knows it.

    Yes, those qualify. Ah well. I guess the internet’s all that it’s cracked up to be. I wonder if a mailing list is more your style. I’m on several mailing lists and the conversations are usually great.

  4. It would be interesting to know if the quality of discourse is higher on FB, for Civil Beat and The Atlantic.

    How do the mailing lists work?

  5. One caveat, in case I wasn’t clear: I think civil discourse can occur, but this would require moderators, and I assume that would be too costly to most sites. If you had really great moderators that might increase the thoughtfulness of the discourse as well, but those moderators may be rare and/or even more expensive.

  6. Mailing lists predate the web, going back at least to the mid-Eighties. You sign up for a mailing list of a particular interest. A computer keeps track of who’s on the list. When you send an email to the list, it goes to everyone via email, and when they respond to the email, it also goes out to everyone on the email.

    Yahoo! Groups is effectively a mailing list with a web interface, although you can receive the posts via email, as most people do. I’m assuming you have some experience with Yahoo! Groups, yes? If not, that’s not a bad place to start, although searching for the good groups of interest to you could be a challenge. There’s a lot of noise out there among the signal, and there are also a lot of dead groups — groups that were once active but have stalled. This is not unusual. But some lists, such as the Bruce Cockburn Mailing List I’ve been part of since 1994ish, are still going strong.

    And since we’re talking old school Internet, Google groups is basically a web interface for the old Usenet newsgroups, some of which are still active. These were discussion boards before the web, and unless moderated, are a total anarchy. Just the way I like my net. 🙂

    I’ll disagree about “requiring” moderators. Some of my best experiences on the net have been in the absence of moderators. But I’ll agree at least that the broader the user base, the more a moderator becomes useful or necessary. Village Idiots has never had a moderator, and while I wouldn’t call what we do here “thoughtful discourse,” neither is there anything abusive or spammy. If we grew to a million users, a moderator would be needed.

  7. I think I’ve tried yahoo groups and even a usenet group as well a long, long time ago. I can’t remember why I didn’t stick with either.

    I agree with your last paragraph. It’s believable that thoughtful, civil discourse can occur without moderators with smaller numbers of people (and I would call some of our conversations thoughtful). The problem is that these sites are hard to find. If you know how I can find some sites, on the topics I mentioned, let me know.

  8. This is not an attempt to get you to get on FB, but I’ll say that in my own streams, conversation tends to be reasoned and productive. There have been really good discussions there about the Civil Beat situation, including by people who work in other media (KHON and others). One of the things about social media that makes it great is that you get to decide who has any input in your stream. My friends are pretty smart or pretty nice (and in a few situations both).

  9. I hate it less as time has gone by, because they keep changing it. They’ve made several adjustments to how it works — making it more and more like Twitter, actually, which I still love. But they’ve introduced a few changes I dislike, too.

    The main reason is that while they stripped down a lot of functionality that made MySpace impossible to read, they added new things to up its addictiveness (to some others; not to me), and those things made FB almost unbearable for me. But then they added ways of turning that stuff off, which means my stream is a lot more pleasant, by my standards. So yeah. I don’t hate is as much as I used to, but I still don’t love it.

  10. It’s hard to know what you mean because you’re not being specific, but from what I gather, FB’s features that made the site more addictive increased activity on your page and that activity was a strong turn off. Now, you have more control to reduce that activity on your page. Does that sound right?

  11. I’m not being specific because some of this stuff is difficult to explain to a non-user, but I’ll give one quick example. Actually, it’s the same example I gave you at Grace’s birthday dinner, but I don’t mind giving it again.

    One of the (many) things you can do on FB is play games. There are a lot of different kinds of games, but one very popular one involves running a farm. You start off with a bare-bones farm and a tiny amount of money, but by purchasing seeds and tending to your crops, you grow and sell produce, which lets you purchase better stuff for your farm, or expand its size. You can also help your friends out (real life friends who are also playing the game) by harvesting their crops for them if the crops are ready. ‘Cause the thing about the crops is that they grow at different rates, and once they’re ready to be reaped, you only have a small window of time in which to reap them, or they spoil.

    Harvesting a friend’s crops means you get (insert something desirable here; I actually don’t know what it is because I never played it), so it does something nice for your friends but you benefit from it too. The more friends you have, the more opportunites you have to do nice things for them, and the more opportunities you have for them to do nice things for you.

    This friendship thing is one of the things that makes the games viral. Because the game is better if you have more friends playing, you can send out messages to ALL your FB friends with one easy click. Messages like “Frankie sent you four sheep on Farm Game!” or “Frankie invited you to play Farm Game!” or “Frankie needs your help in Farm Game!”

    Since the games were so addictive and since so many of your friends were playing it, the number of notifications you’d receive just for the games was ridiculous. I’m in on FB because I want to hear about Vicky’s kids getting into HBA, or Jared’s promotion, or some article Angela finds intriguing and would like my comments on. But that good stuff was squeezed in among fifty messages about Farm Game (and its many clones!).

    Thankfully, these games (which are third-party apps FB doesn’t run) can be muted. If Frankie wants to play, that’s great for her and her friends, but I don’t need to hear it. I just have to click a little button and select “mute this app.” It took a while to get them all, but I did, and now it only happens rarely, when a new game comes along that my friends play.

    Okay, that’s hateable thing 1. Hateable thing 2, which I shall copy and paste, is stuff like this:

    I’m never going to say goodbye to some of you. But don’t count on hello either! I’m watching the ones who will have the time to read this post until the end. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading! If you have read everything, select “like” so I can put a thank you on your profile!

    Cancer is very invasive and destructive to your body. After you have finished your treatment, then, your body wants to go to war with yourself trying to reconstruct all the damage caused by radiation. It’s a very long process.

    Please, in honor of someone who died, or is fighting cancer, or even had cancer, copy and paste.

    They all say: “if you need anything, do not hesitate, I’m gonna be there for you”… so I’m going to make a bet that in less than 1/2 of my friends put this on your wall. You just have to copy (not share)!!! I want to know who I can count on,…. Write “done” in the comment when you do.

    To all those who are fighting… I am with you always! I did this for many of us!

    It’s the FB version of a chain letter, only it has a “please pay attention to me” aspect I find detestable. One of our classmates is especially fond of these.

    I don’t know if this is an example of the same thing, but I consider it hateable thing 3.

    Hateable thing 4 (and you’ll love this one because it’s one of your things) is the FB user who passes along content with a disclaimer: “I’m just passing this along. I am not vouching for its veracity.” Sometimes all it takes is a quick Google search to find out if something is true or not. And if you suspect it might not be true, why are you passing it along without checking? What good does a person think could possibly be done simply by passing along something he or she suspects might be untrue?

    And its cousin: a person (someone you know and love!) posts a link to some horrible story. It’s not true. That person’s friends reply to the post, saying, “This is a hoax. Here’s a link that cites it sources, explaining that it’s a hoax.” The poster then responds with either “Hey, I just pass stuff along; I don’t write this stuff” or “Hey, thanks for setting the record straight” without editing the original post or deleting its false content. Hateable.

    I could go on, but now I’m on a bad mood so it’ll have to wait. 🙂

  12. The reason for your last three hateable things are people’s choices – choices of what to post and share. I guess Facebook provides the platform. Is there something Facebook could do (that you would like) to stop this? I don’t think you were blaming Facebook (or are you), but as you stated it almost exactly like chain emails. FWIW, I get sort of irritated at those posts too, but I’m guessing my friend list is so much smaller than yours I can easily ignore or sort through them. Ads are more obtrusive, but I guess it comes with using Facebook for free.

  13. But that good stuff was squeezed in among fifty messages about Farm Game (and its many clones!).

    Yep, I can see how that would be annoying.

    It’s the FB version of a chain letter, only it has a “please pay attention to me” aspect I find detestable.

    I see this sort of thing on twitter as well (e.g., “Please retweet if you agree”). I think it can be annoying for a variety of reasons, but this is far less annoying than the first example you gave in my opinion.

    The third items is on twitter, too. I usually just ignore tweets like that. Now if I had to see this constantly, yeah, that would be annoying.

    Hateable thing 4 (and you’ll love this one because it’s one of your things) is the FB user who passes along content with a disclaimer: “I’m just passing this along. I am not vouching for its veracity.” Sometimes all it takes is a quick Google search to find out if something is true or not. And if you suspect it might not be true, why are you passing it along without checking? What good does a person think could possibly be done simply by passing along something he or she suspects might be untrue?

    While I think this can be a big problem, I’m guilty of this as well. I don’t really pass along something that I suspect might be a hoax, but I will retweet and comment on a headline, mostly from sources that I think are trustworthy. Why do I do this before checking? Answer: 1) The information is noteworthy; 2) I want to comment on it; 3) I don’t want to put in the time to read the entire article to find out if the headline is totally accurate.

  14. Yes, I agree that it’s about how the platform is being used, and that’s actually a by-product of its popularity. Before FB, a lot of people our age just weren’t into the social media platforms that existed (despite my trying to get people on). I had a couple of friends who used Twitter in an irritating way, but it was only a couple because it wasn’t the massively popular thing FB became. Which is one of the things I dislike about FB: its popularity. But the tradeoff (trading non-irritating use in order to be in touch with more of my friends) is worth it to me. Doesn’t make me like that part of it any more, though!

  15. Reid, my problem with passing along bad info is that the person refuses to own it when it’s proven to be untrue. We all make mistakes like that. But the “hey, I just pass stuff along” implies not caring that he or she passed along bad info, and the refusal to edit once stuff has proven to be inaccurate is negligent. Are you saying you do this on Twitter?

  16. Are you saying you do this on Twitter?

    No, I don’t. I don’t think taking responsibility is a good thing. I was addressing the other points/questions you made.

  17. Yes, I agree that it’s about how the platform is being used, and that’s actually a by-product of its popularity.

    I’m not sure what you were referring to specifically, here.

  18. Don pointed out that my last three hateable things were really how FB is used, not functions of FB itself.

    Oh, I didn’t see Don’s post.

    Also, I have to disagree. Taking responsibility for bad info is the only good thing to do about it, once it’s been done.

    Oops, I meant that not taking responsibility is a bad thing. You really think I would think it’s a good thing?

  19. But you weren’t curious as to what that position would be? I would have assumed that there were some error in the writing, but if I didn’t, I’d be curious what the bigger something would be.

  20. Reid, I try not to assume anything. At your request. Earlier today I was puzzled by your suggestion that forty years ago we weren’t concerned about the ozone layer, overpopulation, or nuclear apocalypse. So I rebutted and you made your bigger point. I took the same route here: I was puzzled by this suggestion so I rebutted it and thought you would make a bigger point. Sorry if I misread that.

  21. I guess I would have thought the statement was so unusual that I would have wondered if it wasn’t written in error–and would have asked for confirmation.

  22. This article is appropriate for this thread:

    The remarks below resonated with me:

    But, as most people know, the majority of discourse in online comment sections is not inspirational. The best I could do as moderator some days was to keep the conversation from completely turning into a flaming cesspool. Last month, I was speaking to a friend, describing my long-held hope that things might someday improve, that every time a conversation in comments went really well, maybe it signaled a turning point—that from then on, things would get better. As soon as I said that aloud, I realized that it sounded as if I had been living in a long-term abusive relationship.

    By the way, the author moderated all his comments, which, to me, is an insane task. I mean, on some level, I think I might be inclined to do the same, but the author putting themself through that is kinda crazy.

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