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Virginia Heffernan discovers that online comments mostly suck:
"Someone should be paying more attention, especially since online newspaper commenters as a whole seem to have (at least) the stamina, drive and spare time to become a cogent part of online journalism. But as it is, online commentary is a bête noire for journalists and readers alike. Most journalists hate to read it, because it’s stinging and distracting, and readers rarely plow through long comments sections unless they intend to post something themselves. But perhaps the comments have become so reader-unfriendly, in part, because of the conventions of the Web-comment form."
I don't know whether Heffernan has ever done letters-to-the-editor duty, but I did, as a lowly intern well before the advent of widespread open commenting and closer-to-universal Web access, and... it wasn't all that different. There was less--in terms of raw numbers--idiocy, but there's no reason to attribute that to anything but the barrier of purchasing a postal stamp. And I don't recall everyone freaking out about how the postal system was an embarrassment to mass communication. Let's see newspapers start printing every letter they receive and we'll get back to the question of the Web later.
Personally, I don't care that online comments are terrible, and I think it might be for the best that they are. There are a lot of stupid, angry people in the world, and journalism, for better or worse, tries to pretend otherwise, perhaps because it's virtually all predicated on the idea that people are sensible and want to listen to theoretically well-reasoned arguments. But it's simply not the case; if Heffernan really wants to gaze into the void, she should read through the comments on virtually any YouTube video, no matter how innocuous, which almost inevitably dead-end into depressing bizarreness.
While I understand her desire for online commenting that advances the debate, there's something to be said for nature red in tooth and claw and typos, if we're going to use the Web as some kind of accounting of culture. People: weird and scary, a lot of the time. Worth remembering.
Besides, there are fantastic online comments sections, which Heffernan theoretically could have looked at as counter-examples. The comments at Slashdot, one of the longest-running and most popular tech sites on the Web, has witty, engaged, relatively polite commenters thanks to a technologically sophisticated comments system and an active community. Niche blogs, especially ones pitched at a better-educated audience than your typical newspaper, also tend to have much more engaging comments sections. Madness is the price you pay for a big audience.
Technology isn't going to make an audience smarter more reasonable; all it can do is add barriers to idiots. You can allow commenters to vote dumb shit off the threads, or moderate them, or call them, per Salon, "letters" instead of comments, a clever little rebranding that seems to have improved their quality over Slate's "Fray" (look, call something the fray and reap the whirlwind).
Or, in the age of micropayments, you could reinstitute the barrier of money by making readers pay to comment, just as they had to do in the golden age of handwritten letters to the editor. Want to add your two cents? Ante up.