09.12.10

The Meanest Commenters on the Web

It was supposed to be a meaningful conversation with readers of his Politico blog. Instead, it has degenerated into a screaming pit. Brian Ries on the state of talk-back on the Web.

Ben Smith, the popular Brooklyn-based political journalist who blogs at Politico.com, is under attack. On the commenting section on his site, the wrath has increased to such a fever pitch that Smith is now considering banishing his commenters for good.

“A running conversation about politics,” is the tagline of his blog. But if a conversation is a two-way exchange of ideas, it has become anything but, he says. “A good comments section is a reason to visit a blog,” he adds. “I fear that mine is, if anything, a reason not to.”

For the 33-year-old Smith, things weren’t always so vitriolic.

When he was first brought in to helm a blog about national politics, Smith brought the experience of building constructive, community-focused commenting sections—he had already founded three popular New York City political blogs: The Politicker, The Daily Politics, and Room Eight. At his new online home, he wanted to create a space for meaningful political discourse, and fought to get a comments section.

But somehow that discourse soured.

“My blog was at first given over to Obama-backers attacking me… as a racist and a Clinton tool,” Smith says. “Then to Clinton die-hards, attacking me and others as Obama minions; then mostly back to the Obama supporters attacking me as a neocon. And now that the energy is on the right, to conservatives attacking me as a pawn of the White House.”

Smith has been called a “weasel,” a “flaming liberal,” a “Journolister,” a “liberal hack,” an “establishment politico” who will be eaten by Sarah Palin for lunch, a “first grader,” “a basketball player with no jump shot,” a “piece of snot,” a “3 year old transexual, wanker,” and a “commie.”

Smith has been called a "weasel," a "flaming liberal," a "Journolister," a "liberal hack," an "establishment politico" who will be eaten by Sarah Palin for lunch, a "first grader," "a basketball player with no jump shot," a "piece of snot," a "3 year old transexual, wanker," and a "commie."

When Smith recently published a bland, one-paragraph post, highlighting an ABC News report about GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, the first comment was "Shut the f.ck up ben, and take your journOlist buddies to cuba."

Another user stepped in, writing under the username ‘Poor Ben’: “Seriously, why do people come here just to belittle Ben? There are other sites you can visit.”

I first registered an uptick in what we might call “the crazy” when Smith wrote about my Tumblr-based experiment in getting Facebook to remove a note that Sarah Palin had posted on Facebook about the so-called ground zero mosque. And while I had expected some hate from the Palinbots, I was surprised to see the degree to which Smith got it, too.

“Ben ‘JournoList’ Smith gives free pub to someone who hates Sarah Palin and tries to censor her. Surprised a JournoLister does this?” asked one frequent commenter, a user who posts under the name “Oh-THAT Liberal media.”

“Looks like Ben Smith has found his new soul mate,” offered another. “Did you and this liberal scumbag censor Brian Ries compare notes Ben?”

We hadn’t compared notes. And, while I haven’t confirmed this yet with Smith, I don’t believe that we’re soul mates.

Of course, anyone can go through the comments section of a national political blog and find some off-color remarks—what’s been happening on Smith’s blog has been occurring since the early days of the Web. What’s interesting about the Ben Smith-haters is what they tell us about the current political discourse—and the state of political talk-back on the Web.

Longtime political blogger Andrew Sullivan has never incorporated a commenting section on The Daily Dish, a decision he says was originally a way to avoid getting sued for libel. Instead, comments are curated, a model Sullivan says he is “quite proud of.” He never actually edits the contents of the contributions but instead serves up only those he and his co-editors deem worth sharing.

“By editing comments, and selecting the best, and also doing my best not to rig the argument in my favor, we got an equilibrium of reader interaction that fused a comments section with a blog,” says Sullivan. We “found a formula that was the best mix and inspired more open-sourced blogging and thinking, but edited through the prism of my frontal cortex.”

The magnificence of Sullivan’s frontal cortex notwithstanding, the blogger has faced criticism for, effectively, having the last word in a forum that, some say, should be open and free. (Sullivan has let his readers vote on whether they wanted unedited comments.) 

Other sites have taken a different tack, requiring registration through Facebook (which removes the veil of anonymity) or using software instead of editors to keep their commenting sections clean.

Last year, Gawker Media introduced a tiered system on Jezebel.com and other sites, in which trusted commenters would be given a gold star for their thoughtful contributions and, with it, free reign to post; unapproved commenters would see their comments hidden behind a "Show all comments on this post" link, effectively combining commenting software with the watchful eye of a human moderator wielding the banhammer against nastiness and thread-jacking.

In a post explaining the decision, Anna Holmes, then-editor of Jezebel.com wrote, "Debating passionately but politely in the comments is one thing: piling on, belittling and mocking are another." That same day, Nick Denton, Gawker Media proprietor, wrote in an internal memo of a Deadspin editor's success in "taking back the site from some commenters who thought they were in charge."

Still other sites have chosen to give commenters a time-out to allow tempers to cool down. During the heat of the presidential campaign, CBSNews.com told staff in a memo that they would “no longer enable comments on stories about presidential candidate Barack Obama.” The problem? Too many racist comments.

"We have our Rules of Engagement,” Mike Sims, then-director of News and Operations for CBSNews.com told the now-shuttered Public Eye blog. “They prohibit personal attacks, especially racist attacks. Stories about Obama have been problematic, and we won't tolerate it."

Editors at Engadget, a popular tech blog, decided to turn off the comments section entirely earlier this year. “Hey guys, we know you like to have your fun, voice your opinions, and argue over your favorite gear, but over the past few days the tone in comments has really gotten out of hand,” wrote Joshua Topulsky, editor in chief. “What is normally a charged—but fun—environment for our users and editors, has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations... and that's just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that's simply not the case.” (Topulsky has since re-enabled the comments.)

Smith, for his part, is still considering what to do.

With Politico contemplating a redesign, one way to stop readers from spewing hate would be to shut down that “running conversation.”

“Comment sections work best if you have a real community—say a neighborhood or hobbyists or ideological fellow travelers—where people share common interests and care about one another,” says Smith. On a political blog, he says, you have to have “very intense involvement and moderation—and ruthless banning—by the moderator.”

In another email he adds that, to him, the commenters are already gone.

“In truth, I gave up on the comments section,” he says. “It's not an interesting conversation.”

Brian Ries is a Philly-born senior editor at FREEwilliamsburg.com and tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.