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Posted at 06:22 PM ET, 09/21/2011

Online comments: Constructive forum or mindless sniping?

The Post’s online comments are popular, and on many stories range above 1,000. Often these discussion forums are educational and entertaining, and occasionally enlightening. I generally like reading them.

Comments certainly increase reader engagement with The Post and keep people on the Web site for longer periods of time, which is one of the measurements of quality online traffic, and one that advertisers like to see.

But I get a lot of complaints that in some commenting strings, the discussion degenerates into name-calling, political insults, and just plain juvenile behavior. This week I got a letter from a reader in Maryland who urges The Post to make its comments more like the New York Times’s, which are heavily moderated. And not all stories on the Times’s site allow for commenting.

I reprint here, with his permission, the letter from Bill Moseley, a retired computer professional, who says comments sometimes make The Post look like a “cheap tabloid.” I hope it will encourage discussion of this topic. You can comment on the blog here, or send me a note at ombudsman@washpost.com.

Bill’s letter will be the first of a regular feature on the Omblog that we’re calling “Thought Bubbles” — taken from the comics, in which characters will think a thing, but not actually say it. I’ll publish letters to me that I think are particularly instructive or provocative. Sometimes I’ll agree with the letter writer, sometimes I’ll disagree, and I mainly do this to encourage discussion, and feedback to The Post. I do agree with Moseley that often the comments degenerate into not very helpful name-calling. But sometimes they rise to the occasion and illuminate as well as inform.

Here’s Bill’s letter:

“The comments sections could be quite useful for people to understand the views of others and to examine ideas. Instead, they have become a vehicle for often-mindless sniping, distortions, and name-calling. The Post's comments contrast very poorly with those in the New York Times. I am particularly offended by some of the name-calling, ‘Obummer,’ for example, for President Obama.

“It also appears that a large number of the comments (maybe 20 percent to 40 percent) are orchestrated. I jokingly refer to the ‘orchestrator’ as the tea party block captain. Many comments appear to have large amounts of material that gets copied from some other source, pasted in, and sometimes slightly modified. For a while it was quite clear that some of the comments were partially or wholly computer-generated. Another computer professional and I reached this conclusion independently. I am a retired manager of information security for a significant government agency, and he is currently active as a manager in this same field.

“It is also clear that the orchestration of effort is right-wing based. Commenter IDs come and go because the organizers realize readers will stop reading certain submitters, so those submitters assume new IDs.

“The comments sections as they are currently evolving are slowly causing the online version of The Post to look more and more like a cheap tabloid. I used to post a lot of comments but am doing so less and less, as the comments sections increasingly become a playground for individuals taking cheap shots. There are some simple, inexpensive things The Post could do to improve comments significantly, but I'm skeptical that The Post would be interested in doing so. I suspect that advertising revenues are involved.

“I find it really depressing to see The Post losing the ability to be a forum for the constructive exchange of ideas. In today's world, where there is so much disagreement, that is a very heavy loss.”

By  |  06:22 PM ET, 09/21/2011

 
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