There’s no doubt about it: online comment sections can often be a home for misinformation, conflict and worse.
The tenor and toxicity of some commenting has caused many news organizations, including the Bangor Daily News, to rethink their approach to the comment sections.
Several prominent news sites have ditched their comment sections all together, including NPR in 2016, with leadership at the time saying comments on NPR stories “are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users.”
NPR didn’t say so, but the move away from comment sections is essentially an acknowledgement that they can be hopeless pits of incorrect information and name-calling.
It hasn’t devolved to that level of hopelessness on the BDN comment section, but it has gotten ugly at times.
In an effort to improve the commenting section and shape more productive conversations without personal attacks, we’re working on new user guidelines and exploring new ways for reporters and editors to engage directly in those conversations.
It’s a work in progress, and one that included a call for comments from the very people who engage in the forum.
Those comments — thankfully and unsurprisingly — poured in from our regular commenters. And while a cynic may have expected the response to be angry and divisive, what actually happened was a validation of how a comment section can be informative.
The discussion involved more than 250 comments, with a host of thoughtful, introspective and helpful feedback coming from a forum that, well, isn’t always those things.
It was refreshing to see commenters — who often spar in policy debates — find common ground, disagree politely, and even reflect on their own commenting habits.
“We rarely agree but it seems we do here,” commenter WaxlyM told another, who had expressed some reservations about what kind of comments could be deleted or flagged under the new policy (curse words, personal attacks, straying off topic, for example).
“I think we agree on this issue because we like to be able to go onto the comment boards and interact with people who disagree with us and/or get us to look at different aspects of an argument,” commenter MDI1968 replied. “In the context of doing that, it ought to be fine to challenge another person’s argument. I think it’s fine to remove comments that are purely ad hominem or vulgar. However, if we catch each other with an occasional sharp elbow, we ought to be able to handle it. If you’re commenting on here thinking you’ll only receive validation, you’re sorely mistaken. I suspect that you’d agree that it’s a little disappointing when you leave a comment on a current events issue and you don’t get some pushback.”
The responses gave us plenty to think about in finalizing these new rules, including whether individual commenters should have the ability to start more in-depth, one-on-one conversations with others; the pros and cons of requiring people to use their real names; and how links can be helpful in conveying a point.
“Real names are not going to work in a state like Maine where everyone knows everyone, and the targeting of individuals has become rampant. Separation of real life from intellectual life is necessary for some of us who would need to find other ways to speak,” user letsbehonestforonce said.
“I think real names should be required. If you are going to comment, you should back it up by who you are, not some avatar. I have never, ever felt threatened or unsafe for my views,” commenter seththayer countered.
Even in cases of disagreement, the conversation was refreshingly civil and reflective.
“I think many of us here come for the discussion and debate, not because we expect instant agreement or approbation. It causes us to sharpen up our thinking either to strengthen our own reasons for our beliefs, or to challenge ourselves to change beliefs that might not hold up under scrutiny,” said Stephanie Itchkawich, who also acknowledged writing lengthy posts.
“I enjoy your posts, even the long ones, and even when our opinions differ,” commenter twocentspls responded.
Some new forum guidelines may be needed, but exchanges like this one prove that there is some hope in the comment section.