Ask A Web Editor

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One of my jobs as a Web editor at the Sun-Times is to moderate the reader comments on every article — and man is it a messy job. Are there really that many racist people out there?

Yes, yes there are. CORRECTION: No, there are more than that.

Seriously: read Parting the Waters or Family Properties. Recall what Martin Luther King said about how southerners should come to Chicago to learn how to hate; that wasn't very long ago, in the sense that a lot of those people are, you know, still alive. That kind of racism doesn't just disappear over a couple generations.

Would they really say such appalling things in everyday conversation?

Depends on who they're talking to, or how much booze you give them, but yes.

But there does have to be a certain amount of sincerity in what these folks write. People don't spout some of the vile rhetoric I've seen without holding a deep-seated belief in said rhetoric, no matter how much it would be shunned by everyday society.

Not necessarily true. See Troll, Internet.

I blame part of this on what I like to call the "Deadspin effect."

I blame it on what I call the 4chan effect, or Godwin's Rule, or the Usenet effect, or the Virtually Every Open Forum on the Internet Effect Since I Started Using It Back When Gopher Was a Good Place to Find Content.

Maybe the mainstream media are to blame for much of this. The trend is to promote "user-generated content" to make the readers feel more involved in what they're reading. That's all great, but it doesn't give anybody carte blanche to spew obscene, racist rants all over our Web pages.

Actually, it does give them carte blanche, if by "carte blanche" you mean "an open forum to write whatever they want," which is something like "carte blanche."

As Ron White put it, you can't fix stupid. You can filter stupid, or moderate stupid, or ban stupid, but the crazy will always be with us. If there's any upshot at all to the Lord of the Flies ecosystem of the major newspaper comment board, it's that it serves as a corrective to the assumption - upon which much journalism is predicated - that the world is not red in tooth and claw and not steps away from mere anarchy. You don't really need horrible comment threads to tell you this, since there are many good books about it, but might as well take something valuable from them.

Ironically, the comments make plenty of sense:

"There should be a 'Report Abuse' button at the end of this column too. You claim the racist comments stem from the 'Deadspin effect' but give absolutely zero evidence to support this statement. You didn't even say what the 'Deadspin effect' is. Is insulting another sites commenters the only way you can get pageviews??"

"Also, here's an idea. Perhaps the Sun-Times should consider setting up a system for comments, whereby a commenter must essentially prove that he or she is capable of submitting something relevant to the article at hand and not racist or totally moronic in order for his or her comment to even appear on the comment page. You know, like Deadspin does."

"Any comment at Deadspin article similar to these would be deleted immediately and the poster's account disabled. It's always been this way and none of us have any idea why you are implicating the website in the behavior of the people who comment here."

The commenters at Deadspin can be too much for me sometimes, but it's obvious there's a certain level of discourse below which it doesn't fall. Whether or not that level is too low for you is a matter of taste, but the site has an audience and a structure that maintains a specific discourse in the comments.

It's easier for them, perhaps, having an international audience and being defiantly not generalist. But those are also editorial decisions they've made that affect the level of discourse in the comments.

There are a lot of ways to improve comment boards. You can ban people; you can set up a system to rank comments and commenters; you can write for a different audience; you can get into it with trolls. None of these methods, or any others, tend to work on their own, but in concert they often do. They're a lot of work, but certainly less work than trying to change humanity.

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