I wondered whether talking back to online commenters might lift the conversation and, secondarily, increase page views.
So for these past several weeks, that’s what I’ve done with my column as a test.
Not to talk back, exactly. Not in the sense of joining mudfests or slinging insults. No, I mean fostering discussion about the ideas themselves, clarify misunderstanding, add more information or background, acknowledge good points I had not thought about, maybe raise new questions and thoughts.
My column may not be the best test, though, being more concerned with ordinary life than the wedge issues of our time. Partisan politics don’t intrigue me so much unless I see funny twists such as, say, President Trump metaphorically as correct as Gary Snyder about “raking the forest” while also completely nuts declaring Finns in fact garden their many wild acres.
But I’m hardly a comments connoisseur, estranged as I am from Facebook and the like. Well, other than photographs of my little grandsons. My exposure to comments largely has come from complaints about them, no doubt feeding my bad attitude. I seldom remembered to look for them under my own work.
What I found
I did find much of the smartest-person-in-the-room vibe, a bit of baiting, some vitriol off topic, lots of smug putdowns. But not nearly as much as I expected. Most comments, while often sharp and pointed, were on or close enough to target with the topic of the column.
Nothing needed to be deleted, even the snarkier comments unhinged from anything I wrote about. My skin grows thicker than most, perhaps thicker than might be healthy. But if moderating for tone or to enhance the discussion about the subject, those stray cat posts probably should go.
Online comments are not the only responses to what I write. I get a lot of email sometimes, and a few responses by phone. The best conversations by far are in person.
Let’s see, the hottest feedback tends to come by phone, though the caller almost always cools down fast with a little listening. Email is the most logical and coolest form, in person the most polite and comprehensive.
The comments have an on-stage quality to them. The commenter knows he or she is speaking to a room, has an audience and plays to it. Otherwise they’d email, right?
They also are quite literally launching their views from behind a screen, often with something other than their real name. I’d prefer our system not allow such easy cloaking, but the issue is more the message than messenger. The lone commenter we finally had to ban identified himself fully.
Critics post comments far, far more often than fans, who will tend to call, email or love up the author in person.
And it’s the partisan pieces that bring on the hornets and stings. No surprise there.
The best thing that came from the exercise so far was a pre-COVID idea revived. A commenter, Greg Zaller, had suggested training volunteers as journalists months ago. Good community education and a possible hobby for them, and potentially good for readers, too. A civic win-win, at least in theory. In the course of our back and forth, he brought it up again. I made a note.
Comments to a column I wrote about a distinct lack of COVID-19 spread in our local restaurants highlighted the anxiety many feel about indoor dining and the pandemic itself. I didn’t understand why some people would get so mad at a few restaurants banding together to appeal for rules that better fit our area while following the ones in place.
I saw fear whipping quickly into anger, and reports from crowded places and studies from elsewhere proving far more persuasive with the commenters than the low numbers in fact here. None were swayed in the least by my observation that Nevada County has had its own full and direct and ongoing “study” with contact tracing and a hard count, far more accurate and relevant to us than the studies they cited.
I was most amused with one commenter changing what I’d written right above the comments into a straw man that he or she then shot full of outraged arrows. Why not just go after what I did write?
There are issues with the automatic moderator. For instance, one of my replies was held up for the word “swine” in swine flu. A sprinkling of comments were off topic and only meant to wound as the commenters felt wounded or wronged.
But by and large, the level of discussion has been pretty high, higher than most sites and some other pieces on our site I’ve scanned.
I do think replying to the more-on-point contributions helped. It’s harder to tell if page views rose as a result of engaging with the commenters or commenters were more attracted to the political red meat of the column. Maybe a bit of both.
In any case, I didn’t find the comments nearly so horrid as I had supposed. Reading and replying wasn’t so bad. It was even fun. I’ll keep going.