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Turning the Tables on the Comments Section: The Best and Worst Commenters at Online Sites and Magazines

Like their namesakes from fable who live under bridges, “Trolls” are people who write nasty remarks and live underneath an online article, in its Comments section. 

Media mavens and content providers—the new term for “writers”–seem to agree that Comments sections, while theoretically promising as spaces for deliberation, have proven a disappointment.

Commenters judge. Here I’m turning the tables and judging the Commenters.

A few caveats: I reward any Comments section advisedly, because you can’t wander through a Comments section, however relatively meritorious, without stepping into an occasional pile of Troll dung. You’ll be reading merrily along and then, out of the blue, you get, “U R an idiot.”

And these are obviously my personal opinions. There are thousands of candidates and I haven’t read every online magazine that might qualify. I considered primarily the most heavily-visited sites. As Marilyn Hagerty told her daughter after her review of a North Dakota Olive Garden went insanely viral, “I don’t have time to read all that crap”— she meant comments about herself on social media.

To sample some sites I picked articles or opinion pieces featured on April 16 that seemed like they could elicit reaction, but which were written on topics that I don’t personally write or feel defensive about. Again, my criteria here isn’t whether I personally agree or disagree with the Commenters, but the quality of expression, and manners.

The Dumb and Dumber/Mean and Meaner Award:  CNN.COM

There are so many contenders for the meanest Commenters that it was almost unfair to choose. Friends also nominate ABCnews, Yahoo, and MSNBC.

But CNN’s “Comments” section carries the day for me. It reads like a drunken brawl at closing time in a saloon in the anteroom to Hell.

For reasons unknown, these Commenters are extremely angry. Comments are often rude, uncivil, vulgar; little more than name-calling and ad hominem attacks; hyberbolic in the apocalyptic significance assigned to pieces with which the Commenter happens to disagree (folks, get over it. It’s an… essay); occasionally misogynistic and bigoted; atrociously spelled, punctuated, and written; and lacking in intellectual or emotional panache. Other than that the section’s fine.

If you’re an elementary school teacher who wants to edify students on the difference between “its and it’s” or  “waist” and “waste,” then CNN’s Comments is the place for you.

Grazing about, I read a review of the  HBO series “Girls”—a program that I don’t watch, and a genre of entertainment review that doesn’t particularly interest me—and learned from the Trolls that the reviewer was “yet another Civil-Rights Appointed Feminist Professor” with nothing at all to say.  Yet another?  Trust me, there aren’t that many. Another commenter suspectsshe gets “high off her own farts.”

Next I randomly choose a brief article by a medical doctor, answering a question about whether pot-smoking can affect work performance. It sounds reasonable enough. Commenters savaged the author, called her piece “terrible,” and berated the medical doctor for parading her credentials—as if being a doctor gave her some special authority over the Trolls themselves, who know from the pothead that they knew in college that there’s no relationship between pot-smoking and attention deficit.

The “What’s Great Content Like You Doing in a Nasty Comments Section Like This?” Award: POLITICO

This award goes to the publication with good content and bad comments.

I love reading Politico as much as I loathe reading their Comments section.

Given their lovingly wonkish content, I’m surprised that the Comments section disappoints.

It’s so tritely, redundantly embattled.

Comments and rejoinders boil down to, “I am a Conservative. Therefore, I hate you.” Or, “I am a Liberal. Therefore, I hate you.” The merits of Government as an abstract entity are debated along the same stale ideological lines.

For that reason Politico might also win the “Runnin’ Over the Same Old Ground” award. The specific content of an article—often thoughtfully written and well-reported—doesn’t really matter. It’s used as a pretext for two sides to square off.

The fact that Politico invites commenters to state a party affiliation in their user ID might exacerbate this bivouac mentality.

Most Thoughtful Comments Section Guidelines Award: CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR.COM

I like the Christian Science Monitor. I like that they begin their FAQs on comments with a lovely statement of their goal of civil discourse—“to injure no man, but to bless all mankind” and that they provide concrete guidance to commenters.

Their commenters often reflect this ethical sensibility, to me. Comments on an article about the decline in animals euthanized led to a spirited but not on the whole offensive debate about the politics of a nonprofit quoted. Commenters seem aware of the humanity of other Commenters and authors—excuse me, “content providers”—and mindful of etiquette.

Also, the Poynter school of journalism has subtle and useful guidelines for comment on their website, which includes the all-important wisdom: Don’t post comments when emotional and overly angry.

The “Off on a Tangent” Award: WSJ.COM

There areplenty of contenders for this award, which recognizes Commenters who write about their own preoccupations, although they’re unrelated to the author’s own theme or argument.

An article on the history of pencil design will elicit a comment on Iran, for example.

The Wall Street Journal attracts its fair share of Off on a Tangent commenters. In an article on the Secret Service detail scandal, a commenter writes: Obamacare was written as a time-bomb, for solidifying the totalitarianism of the DNC, this nation’s Leftist party of dystopian designs.

Yes, well, um… back to those Secret Service agents now.

A good feature of the WSJ online forum:  They discourage anonymous commenters and encourage the use of real names. That helps inhibit incivility.

Most Indignantly Offended Commenters Award: SALON 

This is a population of Commenters who, on good days, can sound witty, well-informed and impassioned and, on bad days, like chronically indignant and “outraged” furies on the brink of their 19th nervous breakdown or suffering from the Commenters equivalent of PMS.

Most Likely to Give a Positive or a Constructive Comment Award: WIRED.COM

Wired has some occasionally witty and generally civil conversations and discussions. They seem more like actual discussions than other Commenter communities to me, as if the participants aren’t just there to hate on each other. 

Maybe that’s owing to the can-do technology and engineering spirit, and to Wired’s less politically flammable subject.

Since Comments sections list so noticeably toward the side of pugilistic hostility, there isn’t any site among the prominent ones where you’re “likely” to find a vast preponderance of constructive energy.

I do find that Huffington Post pieces sometimes attract a good spirit of building on an article, giving the author an ‘atta girl or just sharing an affirmative comment.

My friend disagrees, however, and calls the Huff Po Comments sections “Troll Grand Central.”

Jekyll and Hyde Award for Really Great Comments/Really Rotten Comments: WASHINGTON POST.COM

It’s the Best of Times and the Worst of Times at the Washington Post. I’m biased toward the Post, which has been my go-to paper for years. The Post attracts both very astute, detailed, substantive comments, and very inane and belligerent ones in the same thread.

For April 16 I read through E.J. Dionne’s treatment of stand your ground laws, and found the unevenness among Commenters to hold true.

On the one hand, we find terse attacks against gun-confiscating liberals and the usual counter-attacks; on the other hand, there are paragraphs-long, subtle, contextualizing comments about the ambiguities of the second amendment’s “right to bear arms” provision.

Best Vocabulary, Spelling, Grammar, and Coinage Award: THE ECONOMIST.COM

The Economist isn’t my bailiwick politically but I enjoy reading it.

Their Comments section online is eloquent in expression, and sometimes exhibits impeccable spelling and coinage.

In an article on the Egyptian elections, for example, we get this comment:

Purposefully held misconceptions seem to be valued more than intellectual honesty. Nobody cares to note that Quran enjoins the importance of consultation and consensus in decision making; and that early muslim Caliphs were nominated and then confirmed by popular approval.

Western Civilization is a jealous entity. It uses Christianity for Holier-than-thou sermonizing, and it uses Secular Humanism for Smarter-than-thou smugness. One thing it cannot stand is competition. Must one resort to the view of “Clash of Civilizations”, when it is evidently un-needed, counterproductive, and ruinous?

How often do you get to see “enjoin” and a reference to Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis casually tossed in from a Commenter?

Nice work!

Best Echo Chamber Award: THINK PROGRESS and DAILY CALLER

This is the Comments section where you’re most likely to hear your worldview echoed back to you by partisans. In other words, places where most Commenters are in basic agreement about the cosmos.

FOX NEWS is too easy a target, albeit a worthy one.

For a less obvious choice, I’m inclined to single out Think Progress, for the left-liberal-progressive reader, and perhaps Daily Caller for the right-conservative reader.

In these spaces, it seems that you’re least likely to encounter a Troll of another stripe.

It happens, of course, but perusing through the over 1,000 comments on a Think Progress article about teen birth rates data, for example, I found few commenters who weren’t, as one commenter said, “on the same side” politically.

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Commenter skirmishes at these sites are more often politically intramural or just personal. Some e-ink was spilled at Think Progress in this article’s comments over what amounted to a woman calling another commenter a jerk and that man saying, in effect, “who you callin’ a JERK, jerk.” And so on.

Thoughtful Commenters Who Might Teach You Something New Award: DIANE REHM SHOW

This is a sleepily under-utilized but commendable space of Commenters that accompany Rehm’s iconic, wonderful talk show. Comments are occasionally over the top, but more often just as thoughtful as Rehm’s guests and callers.

For example, notice how civil and informative this writer is in her disagreement with Rehm’s premise on a show about racial profiling and Trayvon Martin:  

Profiling is a euphemism for something quite ugly, but it is something that law enforcement personnel…do (not regular citizens or vigilantes)….In the Martin case, we should really be talking about extrajudicial execution…against a person who was assumed guilty because of his race. I trust our judicial system will evaluate Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence fairly..

And accompanying a story about facing death, we get this gem from a Commenter about her 86-year old father’s death:  

He didn’t fight or lose a [“battle” with cancer]; he simply died with courage and equanimity….Preparing for and accepting the inevitability of death should be a normal part of life—and medical practice. It might alleviate fear…and help us focus on living while we are well.

The Most Civil Discussion Award:  ATLANTIC.COM’sTa-Nehisi Coates

This is because Coates, the moderator, really, really works at it. He says he moderates and hosts his Comments section like a dinner party: If someone says something rude at the “dinner party” of his Comments section, then he asks them to leave—just as he would at a face-to-face party. Coates warns, however, that if you take this approach, you’ll be exhausted by moderating comments.

That’s why most columnists don’t bother, and just let the Trolls rock it out—under their bridge.


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