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Babel policy can be counter-productive

Angela considers the pros and cons of the comment-rich internet

Who guards the guardian?

Or maybe, The Guardian?

Is it ‘whimsicaleye’, who recently wrote….. ‘It’s time to smash the state.
Summer of Discontent 2012
F*** the olympics.
F*** the c**** jubilee’.

There, loud and proud, on the Guardian’s justly famed website with around 38 million unique users a month. Good stuff, eh?
Over at The Irish Times, are people reading it online for the humour of Frank McNally’s Irishman’s Diary, the polymathic brilliance of Fintan O’Toole, or the robust interventions of his well-behaved interlocutors? On irishtimes.com, comments generally appear after Comment pieces, rather than any old bit of news on sites such as TheJournal.ie.

The issue of who is providing journalistic content has gone well beyond the concept of the ‘citizen journalist’. This is the brave, public-spirited individual who reports on events, meetings, injustices, without the benefits of pay or professional training. They then post their accounts of what’s going on for the benefit of all.
But as well as the CJs, there’s a multitude of commentators, aggregators, and responders, who append their comments to news stories on websites. Some also blog and put across their view of the world – whether well-founded or not it’s often impossible to tell.
In last Saturday’s Irish Times newspaper, contributor Stephen O’Byrnes raised the issue of what you might call ‘user-generated content’, and how it should be handled. Here’s a sample…
‘Offering engagement and accessibility to Seán and Mary Citizen
is all well and good (“do keep your texts and tweets rolling in”),
but too often this is becoming a platform for political soreheads
of every hue.’

Although (as I said on Twitter) there was a whiff of elitism in O’Byrnes’ argument, he did raise a point of decision and discussion for ‘big media’ platforms. To what extent do you allow your product – which all news platforms are, if they want to make money – to go open-slather? Over the past five years there has been a mounting enthusiasm, or anxiety, among publishers and broadcasters for using and publicizing the reactions and comments of the audience. (Yes, even audience is a bit of a dirty word now, suggesting the ‘us and them’ structure of the old days of ‘gatekeeper’ journalism, when news was the sacred possession of the narrow and self-elected journalist class.)
Two main impulses have fuelled this craze. One, you need to engage with your audience; flatter the consumer/customer/colleague, allow them to contribute.
Secondly, it’s cheap. The punters are only too thrilled to hear their tweet read out or see their words of wisdom appended to a professional news piece. They aren’t looking for any payment.
To take the first point, it’s a sign of the anxiety and insecurity that much of the ‘big media’ (legacy media, if you like) feels towards the opening-up caused by the internet. There’s been a marketing-inspired rush to embrace the reader and listener. Free speech rules. If a lot of that speech is inconsequential, let alone spelled and punctuated with no regard for the conventions, so be it. The important thing is the democratization permitted by the Web.
Secondly, the urge to utilize ‘user-generated content’ (the BBC has a whole department dedicated to it) is sensible. There is a lot happening, and increasingly reduced reporting staffs cannot be everywhere. UGC enriches professional content – but as an accessory, not a substitute.
When complaints are made about the tosh and rubbish on the web, the answer usually comes ‘well don’t read it then!” And censorship is not desirable.

In Slovakia, where a common paywall now exists to protect newspapers, a decision was taken to abandon comment columns at the end of posted material. One staffer said happily, “All the idiots have left the forums!” As anyone who has ever attended a public or union meeting will know, the oxygen of publicity goes right to the head, and mouth, of some individuals.
Censorship, no, but quality control, yes. So I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Stephen Byrnes said, in fact – someone, somewhere, needs to be moderating those comments and deciding what is good and what is not.
It’s called editing and it’s as old as God. You should have seen the first draft of the Ten Commandments.

Here’s a link to Stephen O’Byrnes’ article (paywall permitting)
\’Media should confront angry texters\’

And this link is to a paper on moderating comments done by a research fellow at the London School of Economics, for the Polis institute.  IsCommentFree – Polis

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