The Nasty Effect

I was at a professional development meeting in Indianapolis last week when I got an email from a client saying that she thought we should close comments on her website. She referenced an article from a major news source that is shutting down comments after tolerating years of personal abuse from vicious commenters, and she mentioned a nasty and regular commenter at her website. She was tired of him, she said.

I asked my colleagues whether they were shutting down comments. They weren’t. Comments, they agreed, were a good indicator of engagement, a handy KPI for thought leadership websites.

This is the view I passed along to my client, along with some suggestions for ways we could test the value of allowing comments.

I came back to my blog monitoring. I saw nasty comments everywhere, from snide ones to crude ones, obvious spam to apparently serious and thoughtful comments peppered with offensive terms. I deleted those with obscenities and racial slurs and ignored the rest — an unpleasant duty, like cleaning up after your dog, but nothing to get upset about. I approved a passionate comment posted over the weekend — and the obnoxious follow up accusing us, when the post wasn’t approved by the next day, of censorship. I sent filth to spam folders and read carefully through racist rants to make sure I was not misunderstanding before deleting them. As I do every day.

It was different, though. I couldn’t really ignore the nastiness any more. I saw it, and I wondered how I had managed to stop seeing it. My mother wrote a series of best-selling books on verbal abuse, its long-term effects, and the damage we do by treating it as unimportant. When had I begun to tolerate it?

At what point had I decided that it was okay for me to have to clean up obscenities at the start of every workday? How had I accepted that my clients and my team should be called “morons” or “ignorant”? Why had I accepted the idea that freedom of speech meant our visitors should have to be faced with petty name-calling in the comments section by people too cowardly even to use their own names?

The thrill offensive commenters feel when they call another commenter an “idiot” or heap scorn on a viewpoint that differs from their own must be just about the same as the thrill felt by those who make obscene phone calls or write poison pen letters.

It’s time to stop this incivility. We wouldn’t tolerate it in our homes or our workplaces, so we should not tolerate it in our blogs, either. I’m changing blog settings to require people to register and log in when they leave a comment, and I’m listing all those playground offensive terms in the settings that will send a comment to the trash automatically.

Blog comments are a wonderful place to hold public discussions about topics we care about. They shouldn’t be a place where anonymous bullies can abuse others. Those of us who write or manage blogs can stop this trend by shutting down comments… or by insisting on a higher standard of behavior. Maybe the standard we demand in our daily lives outside of our blogs.


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