Morons on parade
Diving into the deep end of A2’s Internet, where the real bottom feeders swim
By Randy H. Milgrom
When MLive Media Group shut down AnnArbor.com in September and moved its content to the statewide MLive.com site, it nonetheless called the local, stand-alone news site a “huge success” that had launched a dialogue that “helped us learn a lot about the news that matters most to our community.”
Many locals disagree that the anonymous comment section at the four-year-old AA.com ever was productive and worry that the conversation at MLive.com, which is also anonymous, will be just as negative.
Meanwhile, after the announcement was made Sept. 4, several regular AA.com commenters complained that their offerings would be more difficult to find among what most agreed was an even rowdier crowd at MLive.com. Some called it a cesspool and vowed never to visit MLive.
Two months after the change, those former AA.com contributors seem to be making good on their promise to steer clear of MLive. Stories by Ann Arbor-based journalists since the transition have been generating fewer comments at MLive than they did at AA.com. And though it’s too soon to draw conclusions, the conversation that does exist seems at least somewhat more civil.
Many we’ve talked to hope it stays that way. They believe the conversation at AA.com reflected poorly on the Ann Arbor community — which MLive’s website calls “affluent (and) educated” — and they agree with Jim Kosteva, University of Michigan community relations director, who said Ann Arbor’s “silent majority” tends to stay out of the online fray.
Noting the “undesirable characteristics” of the “often frustrating conversations” at AA.com, Mark Maynard of MarkMaynard.com surmised that its “educated readership bailed on them. … When people made stupid/offensive comments, instead of challenging them, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Damn, the people on this site are crazy.’”
And Geoff Larcom, former longtime reporter, editor and columnist at The Ann Arbor News and currently executive director, media relations, at Eastern Michigan University, wrote in a Facebook message that “people of real insight and stature — those who are really well versed in an issue — … (were) reluctant to comment because of the many offhand and banal remarks.”
How bad is it?
On July 10, AA.com reported that “a 61-year-old woman was hospitalized with a mild concussion and a knee injury after dodging a falling tree branch in her west side Ann Arbor neighborhood.” The woman and her husband had been walking their dog when a violent rainstorm swept through town, and the woman ran toward home ahead of the others.
By nightfall, more than 30 readers had commented on the story.
“Rain does not hurt you. Panic hurts you,” chided frequent commenter Nicholas Urfe. Others chimed in to blame the victim (jns131: “After seeing those clouds come rolling in? I would not be walking my dog anywhere. Need to pay more attention to the skies folks”) or ridiculed reporter John Counts’ writing skills while also making light of the incident (DiagSquirrel: “Did a tree branch fall on your keyboard when you were typing this? C’mon, proofread, it’s not that hard”).
That condescending attitude grated on many and led Bob Galardi, educational consultant and former longtime Ann Arbor Public Schools employee, to declare, “I can’t stand those comments!” Former Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jesse Bernstein called the former AA.com commenters “morons on parade.”
Even commenters weren’t pleased with the commenters. In an August story concerning U-M’s plunge into tray-less dining, a slew of negativity was capped by this zinger from mgoscottie: “It also saves money/environment if you stab students every time they eat food. They think more carefully about what they really need.”
These comments followed:
Anonymous: “Is it really impossible to report anything positive — educational institution implements dining feature that will reduce food waste and energy expense — without getting bombarded with ridiculous slams? I mean, really?”
(Ann Arbor News Editor) Paula Gardner: “We hope so … eventually!”
Hazen P’Angree: “Welcome to AA.com.”
Many — including Gardner, apparently — not only hoped for but continue to expect more from our neighbors. AA.com had been the most likely local online forum for engaging as a collective in the constructive consideration of vital civic issues. But from the outset most of its contributors seemed reflexively opposed to or at best lazily disinterested in just about every initiative put forward by the city, the university or the business community, and the debate soon was hijacked by a relative few. The comments seemed to range from unbecoming to embarrassing to … depressing.
What accounted for this state of online affairs? And what might improve the conversation at MLive.com — assuming its comment volume eventually returns to something resembling AA.com levels?
Everyone who mocked or chastised the woman injured by the felled tree did so under an assumed name. The woman’s injuries turned out to be more extensive than reported, but would knowing that have mattered to the anonymous posters? Might any of them been kinder, or simply not commented at all, had they been using their real names?
“Anonymity breeds stupidity, vitriol and viciousness,” said Ann Arbor-based marketing strategist and part-time journalist Chris Hippler. “That’s why the KKK wore hoods. The fact that it is creeping into — and diminishing — journalism is disheartening.”
Burns Park Elementary School art teacher Kate Higgins used to be an occasional AA.com commenter until she became “disgusted” by the “wall of anonymity” and the comments she believes never would have been posted had real names been required.
“Freedom of speech comes with responsibility,” said local architect Brad Angelini, and that includes “being accountable for what you say or write.”
Following MLive’s Sept. 4 announcement, Sandy Castle advised MLive’s online moderators: “Make people use their real names. It’s hard to take people seriously when they don’t use their real names and say stupid things. … It’s like a drug to be able to say what you want with no accountability.”
Anonymous posters immediately defended themselves:
1bit: “@Sandy: I am glad you like to use your real name. But … how do I really know that is your real name? … I can pretend to be whomever I want to be on the internet and so can everyone else. And, given the level of commentary on MLive, the last thing I would ever want is for someone to know my real name.”
DJ Earl: “1bit is right. … (C)razy people go after others, sometimes physically, because of their opinions. … It’s not right for me to expose the others in my family … simply to appease those who think my opinion is any different just because I’m using a nickname.”
M-Wolverine: “DJ Earl is right. People are nuts out there, and the Internet is a magnet. … I don’t really want my wife and kid meeting up with the typical MLive frothing lunatic.”
LuckyLouie: “Are you all really so frightened to speak up in your own name? Are your personal opinions really so dramatic — so controversial — that the risk of fellow citizens being so up in arms over them is that high?”
1bit: “@LL: We all wear our own masks. We all have things to hide. Yes, many use their anonymity as a shield to attack those in the public sphere. Sometimes recklessly. But who cares after all what an internet commenter thinks? Particularly an anonymous one … I believe you are underestimating the value of privacy.”
DJ Earl: “No, our opinions are not ‘really so dramatic — so controversial.’ The … problem is not the transmitting end, but the receiving end, in the form of the world’s (and this city’s) psychos. I hope you never have to learn this lesson first-hand.”
DJ Earl tried to prove his point with Castle by immediately visiting her Facebook page and informing her that he now knew what her “daughter looks like in a bikini.”
But for DJ, it’s not what he says — it’s what everyone else thinks they hear. Everybody thinks the other guy is, as M-Wolverine says, the “frothing lunatic.”
1bit seems to consider online discourse as little more than a harmless game, yet she also argues for “privacy” and the right to speak freely in public. Is it fair to ask for both?
“In practical terms, anonymity allows the old American tradition of poison penmanship to flourish,” emailed James Tobin, associate professor of journalism at Miami University who also is involved in the University of Michigan’s bicentennial Heritage Project. “It’s a … dangerous tradition that encourages … inane and nasty conversation when what we need is thoughtful, deliberate, careful conversation.”
The tide may be changing
When HuffingtonPost.com announced in August that it would ban anonymous comments beginning in September, an old debate began anew.
Mathew Ingram of gigamon.com defended anonymity with three primary arguments:
• Those who want to post anonymously will always find a way to do so;
• Posters using their real names can be just as vicious as those who post anonymously; and
• Many who make productive online contributions simply cannot risk having employers, friends or neighbors know their political views or other secrets.
But recent events suggest the Internet could slowly be evolving into a less anonymous place.
In 2011, Randi Zuckerberg, then marketing director of Facebook — where most people use their real identity — announced that anonymity on the Internet “has to go away.” Since then, many news sites — including freep.com and detnews.com — have switched to a Facebook or similar login system that results in higher percentages of posters using their real names.
Twitter still defends anonymous — or at least pseudonymous — users, but Google+ requires a verified identity. YouTube encourages commenters to use their real names and recently started to rank, moderate and even ban comments. And just last month PopularScience.com decided to ban comments altogether.
But MLive does not appear likely to follow suit. Jen Eyer, MLive’s community engagement director, declined an invitation to talk for this article, but on June 20, 2012, she delivered a presentation entitled “Cultivating Constructive Communities in a World of Anonymity” to Lunch Ann Arbor Marketing, a local networking group.
During the presentation Eyer said she’s been asked “quite often” whether MLive would adopt the Facebook login program, and the answer is “a resounding no.” MLive looked into it, she explained, but “it does not meet our needs for a variety of reasons.”
Stefanie Murray was AA.com’s real-time engagement officer before joining the Detroit Free Press, where she is currently assistant managing editor/digital media. “At the Free Press,” Murray emailed, “Facebook comments has definitely made our discussions more civil.” Murray does not “recall Facebook Comments being an option we considered” at AA.com, but that was because “AA.com was 100 percent different.”
In her presentation, Eyer said the best way to improve the discourse is to have reporters “engage” commenters early in conversations to try to steer them to “a productive place. The goal is not to remove all offense, but to provide a vibrant and robust conversation in a respectable and civil manner.”
Based on her experiences, Eyer added, jerks will be jerks whether they are anonymous or use their real names.
She also described a Disqus.com study that ranked pseudonymous posts as more “positive” than Facebook posts, which Eyer characterized as “measured and bland … polite and civil but not genuine. They’re not saying what they really think. And that’s the power of posting anonymously. They can say what they really think and feel.”
Cause and effect
Ingram of gigamon.com suggested in his defense of anonymity that there are “valuable things we can learn from commenters that they would never contribute if they had to attach their real identity to it. Comments about spousal abuse, sexual identity, religious persecution — the list goes on.”
But in several recent court cases involving allegations of libel, website operators have been ordered to disclose the IP addresses of anonymous posters who made comments about others.
“The Supreme Court has rightly held that anonymous commentary is protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter at Bloomberg.com, but libel never has been considered protected speech — whether uttered anonymously or otherwise.
“Whistle-blowers need protection against retaliation, as do those pushing unpopular political positions,” said Carter. But as anonymous commenters have increasingly become “more diabolical than noble,” and cyber-bullying has been blamed for several recent suicides, “operators are rediscovering … (that) anonymity greatly heightens the risk of reckless and even harmful speech. The First Amendment protects thoughtless comments, but nobody is required to host them.”
Internet observers suggest that not more than 1 percent of readers post comments. If that’s the case, recent studies indicate their impact far exceeds their numbers.
In one such study, published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and described by two of its investigators in The New York Times earlier this year, one half of a sample of readers of a scientific news story saw comments articulated in a civil manner while the other half saw substantively identical comments communicated rudely. The result? “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers,” the authors said, “but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” The authors call this “The Nasty Effect.”
Check their ID. Not.
A fool-proof identification verification system, if devised, could play a role in tipping the scales toward the traditionalists.
According to U-M law professor Jessica Litman, it’s already possible, “with Facebook’s cooperation,” to collect enough information from IP addresses to enable “a good guess as to the real bricks-and-mortar identity of the person who set up the account.”
Yelp recently used IP address information, “cookies” and certain other account behavior to prove that accounts opened by employees under false names had been used to post positive reviews on behalf of their employer.
But identity verification upon initial registration remains “very, very difficult,” said U-M Associate Professor of Information Nicole Ellison. That’s why, she said, “we don’t have a working system for regulating content for under-age users.”
The dirty little (not-so) secret may be that the creation and maintenance of every comment section is really all about the “clicks.”
A recent onion.com article featured a bogus explanation from a CNN.com executive that Miley Cyrus’ infamous “twerkng” at the 2013 Video Music Awards was splashed across CNN’s front page “to get … (readers) to click on CNN.com so that we could drive up our web traffic, which in turn would allow us to increase our advertising revenue.” Digiday.com called the Onion satire “a better critique of digital media than can be found in almost any legitimate news source,” and mediaite.com referred to it as “probably accurate.”
But Amanda Lotz, associate professor of communication studies at U-M, said, “It’s probably a bit more complicated than that.
“For the most part, news sites are commercial entities … trying to make money,” explains Lotz. But it’s still “digital pennies or sometimes digital dimes” compared to what used to be dollars spent on newspapers, and the vast majority of corporate advertising budgets continue to be spent everywhere but online.
Furthermore, different outlets will create different policies “depending on what kind of readership they’re trying to cultivate,” Lotz said. “Are they just trying to have the largest or are they trying to reach a certain type of demographic or psychographic?”
Whatever an outlet’s motivations, Evan Adler — who grew up in Ann Arbor and who, at 26, is among the first generation to grow up online — explained by Facebook message what he thinks motivates online commenters, anonymous or otherwise: “When people read a story and it causes an emotional response or a strong opinion … (they) feel the need to voice it. They are usually alone … with no one to tell their thoughts … so they write a comment as an outlet or release without necessarily requiring a response.”