10/27/13 946 W - + 11 - 2 Civility, Psychology, Online Comments and The New Yorker

You may have noticed that the News & Observer (along with all McClatchy news sites) recently changed their reader comments to a Facebook-based interface. The change was made to promote greater civility, as this story of theirs stated. Their prior technology didn't require readers to use their real names. And without such accountability, the comments sections of stories too often became "pits of mudslinging and abuse" that scared off those "who want a rational conversation."

Of course, it certainly also attracted others who sought to read and/or participate in such pits. The open incivility of online forums has its own exciting appeal. But you have to have a thick skin, or be willing to grow one. It's like Thunderdome, to paraphrase an exasperated George Costaznza from a classic episode of Seinfeld. There are no rules, relatively speaking.

Anyway, the changes have been made at our local paper's web site. And to echo one reader's recent comment (don't remember to which story), the now Facebook-based comments of N&O stories are better all around. More civil and more comprehensible. Better language, e.g. grammar and spelling. There's something magical about simple accountability, isn't there?

Did the News & Observer moderate its old-style comments? Believe so, but only post-posting. That is, your comment appeared at the time it was posted, but was subject to removal as needed. Versus, say, the WRAL site, where comments are only approved during business hours and on weekdays. That last requirement remains most curious. You'd think the draw for site visitors--and advertiser revenue--outside of those parameters would compel them to hire at least one weekend person to approve comments. But maybe the numbers don't add up.

WRAL doesn't use Facebook for comments, by the way, nor requires readers to use real names. So there's a bit of apples to oranges in there.

In the world of fire blogs, both anonymous commenting and moderated comments are the norm. But there are some exceptions, notably at Backstep Firefighter.

As their comment policy notes, they require either a real name or a real department. Captain Anonymous doesn't ride here, they once posted. By posting a name or a department, they wrote, "It’s one of the best ways we can all learn from each other in this increasingly technological age." They also added, it "shows your true grit."

On this blog, anonymous comments have a long and curious history.

For the first few years, remarks were a wild west of sorts. Outright personal attacks were removed. Pure vulgarity didn't pass muster, either. No approval was needed, though. Comments were posted when they were posted. Then Mr. Blogger would endure any heartburn as needed, as particular conversations--often around what someone/some department did/didn't do on the fireground--became more pointed or heated. He'd delete particular remarks as needed, and maybe attempt editorial guidance.

Comments on this blog became moderated in [ can't find even the rough date, let's say a couple years ago ].

This was a great move for Legeros, who saw a marked reduction in "blogger's heartburn." This was also a win for fans of civility and rational discourse, though, to be fair, things were pretty good on the blog by that time. The days of the occasional, er, flame wars were long gone.

What was lost? Well, a couple things.

The total number of reader comments, across all postings, commenced a reduction. There was less conversation and less participation and, presumably, less readership of the blog. This might've been a "good riddance" for those who stayed behind, and who are comfortable using their real name and/or coloring within more civil lines of conversation. But even "rough and tumble" interactions can be useful, and provide valuable learning lessons. That's proven in the fire service every day. 

The New Yorker this week addressed this topic, in a superb posting by Maria Konnikova titled The Psychology of Blog Comments.

Their context was an announcement from Popular Science several weeks ago, that the magazine's web site was banishing user comments. No more conversation, period.  (The decision makes me think of a great comment recently said by someone, to the effect of "you can afford to spend all your time creating great content, or curating great conversation, but not both.")

What's the best choice, then? Facebook comments? Anonymous comments? Approved comments? No comments?

Well, the aforementioned New Yorker looks at these things, and through citations of assorted research results. Here are some (simply sketched) notes on their conclusions:

What's my conclusion to their conclusions? Well, it certainly makes (and thus has made) for a nifty blog posting by some fire blogger in Raleigh, N.C. 

Read the New Yorker story, it's pretty good.

Mr. Blogger, having worked with you while you were employed for the city I have my personal opinion as to why you left and your recent changes to your blog adding moderation to reduce/eliminate the “trash talk” confirms them. I’m sorry but you will never be able to change the mindset of a firefighter and their tendency to “talk trash”. Firehouse life will never be “politically-correct” nor do we live in “corporate America”. Please understand I do appreciate your time and effort for us but, come on, some things gotta be let go.
Rescue Ranger - 10/27/13 - 12:45

Thanks for your comment, Rescue Ranger. Someone could write a good paper on the psychology of Legeros, as exemplified by his relationships and actions with the Raleigh Fire Department since 1989, and including his very brief years as a firefighter. (Or least have a few good day room discussions.) Let me know when it’s published. I’d like to read it. Until then, the topic’s fine food for conversation over a cold beverage.

As for trash talk, well, yes, it does seem to be part of the deal.
Legeros - 10/27/13 - 12:57

Maybe some who visit Legeros.com should focus on “logical discussion” rather than trash talking and uncivil behavior. That is my encouragement and I believe the practice will demonstrate maturity, not only as a firefighter but as a person. I see the blog as an excellent educational and informational tool for all. Hey, who cares if the poster is anonymous, just be nice! Historically, ones that are anonymous posters generally are: (1) in fear of expressing themselves or asking a sensitive question, or (2) are generally inclined to stir the pot and driven to create disturbance. “2” seems to be the most common behavior from my vantage point. In the end, all one needs to be is “nice!”
A.C. Rich - 10/27/13 - 14:39

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