Examining the relationship between writer and message board troll

Salon’s Gary Kayima has written a thoughtful, well-written (if somewhat long) piece examining how the outpouring of public commentary is affecting writers’ relationships with their readers. Also, make sure to browse through the comments.

Some highlights from his article:

“All of us — writers and editors and readers alike — are still struggling to get used to this cacophonous cornucopia of communication. It is a brave new world, filled with beautiful minds and nasty Calibans and everything in between. Its benefits are undeniable. But it has some downsides, too — not all of them obvious.”

“The information revolution has set off a million car bombs of random knowledge at once, spraying info fragments through the marketplace of ideas.”

“Formality? The context of online communication is more like being in your car in a traffic jam than sitting across a table from someone and having a talk — and it’s easy to flip somebody off through a rolled-up window.”

“Nasty and ignorant letters affect the reader, too. A few ugly or stupid comments in a discussion thread have a disproportionate impact. Like drops of iodine in a glass of water, they discolor the whole discussion and scare more thoughtful commentators away.”

“Forget the word “elite”: In our laudable all-American haste to trash bogus royalty, let’s not forget there’s a completely different category. It’s called professionalism.”

Thankfully, Kayima does not simply tear into message board users and does concede that certain controls can better the situation. For instance, Slashdot has a tiered system for weighing users’ contributions. Lifehacker requires you to ask nicely. Wikipedia has its own complex system and hierarchy of users.

Many in the online news industry agree that story comments, while excellent to have, often result in simple-minded, often boorish spleen-venting and do not constitute a true online community. Personally, I am not even slightly loathe to nuke a message board if the conversation takes an offensive or disgusting turn, particularly when it involves someone’s death.

However, through user blogs and other innovative tools, I believe it’s possible to elevate the conversation to something that is even more useful for both writer and reader.

Author: Danny Sanchez

Danny Sanchez is the Audience Development Manager at Tribune's Sun-Sentinel.com and OrlandoSentinel.com. Danny has been with Tribune since 2005 in a variety of editorial, digital and product development roles in Hartford, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. He has also previously worked in the newsrooms of the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald.

One thought on “Examining the relationship between writer and message board troll”

  1. Hi Danny,

    Something I said last year at SXSW (on the civility & blog conversation panel I was on), and during the nasty little brou-ha-ha at WaPo during their comments shut down, is that we are in a period where people finally have the power to say things–and don’t quite know how to use it eloquently just yet. There’s lots of folks who grew up with dads spleen-venting at Walter Kronkite, so they feel they should be spleen-venting too. Not to mention folks who use venting on message boards/forums/people’s blogs as a way to deal with their dull little cublicle lives…(and then there are organized groups who do it to “bully”…)

    Thing is, online conversation is a weird and subtle form of communication. Weird in that it doesn’t have the usual body-language to help it along. Subtle in that, once you’ve been doing it for awhile, you can see who’s “real” and who isn’t. I’ve been around it for so many years that it’s second nature to me, and have subsequently developed certain skills that help me understand what’s happening in comments.

    To fully understand how to deal with comments is like learning the subtleties of a different culture. Think of it this way: you can learn to speak perfect Parisian French in a classroom and study all of the culture and custom. But will you feel comfortable when you’er actually in Paris? Or feel that you are just as Parisian? Probably the first time you think you are is when someone will make it very clear that you’re not.

    Community, and how one participates in it, evloves over time–and it’s only through practice that we’ll eventually get how to be good at it

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