Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Trend in Social Media - Getting Rid of Comments (is a pretty good idea)

Last night I wrote perhaps my third of fourth letter ever to DC Comics. I wrote in to let them know I was very much enjoying the work of Chris Roberson on Superman, and that I hoped they would consider letting him continue on the book. My letter was perhaps too formal, but I wanted to ensure that the civility of my tone conveyed my sincerity.  I like my comics, but I am also aware of the insane entitlement and false sense of ownership which pervades all aspects of pop culture in a 24/7 world of online chatter.

Several months ago I wrote a post about the return of DC Letters columns.  I enthused about the decision and my hope for a better tomorrow vis-a-vis a managed conversation about comics.*
While letter cols no doubt will manage the conversation, there's also no doubt that the internet is an enabler for misplaced entitlement and bad behavior (why DC bothers to have a comment section on its blog is beyond me.  Its the same six guys criticizing every single item that goes up) and DC can manage their conversation with fans a bit better. 
Yesterday was the first time I'd noticed a letter column appearing in my issue of Superman 709, so I decided to use the channel offered to me by DC to share my opinion.   While I do not expect to see that letter make it to print, that wasn't the point.  I wanted someone at DC to have a chance of seeing a letter telling them "this is working for someone who likes to give you money.  Please keep it up."  Had I posted to the Message Boards or to a comment on a blog post, most assuredly, civility and a positive message would have been lost in the cacophony.

Of course, DC has had a Bulletin Board/ Message Board for years.  And the last time I visited that board regularly was around...  2002 or 2003.  Even at that time, the place was becoming hopelessly toxic. About three weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled onto the Boards while looking for help regarding DCU Online, and was completely amazed at the vitriol, ignorance, and stunningly awful grammar found in an Aquaman forum.

That same attitude, which is encouraged all over online (from my local paper to Gawker), had also trickled out to DC's very public blog.  Shockingly hateful comments, ignorance and bigotry, disturbing levels of entitlement, ugly personal attacks, and, frankly, an astounding lack of knowledge about the very subject of DC Comics, were on display in the comment sections of virtually every single post.  It was a quagmire.  And all I could think was "Why is DC giving any of these people a forum to do this in public?  And associate this horror with their official site?"

Well, I guess all that's over now.

According to Chris Sims at the Comics Alliance, DC has given up on offering comments on their website and pulled the gate down on the Message Board.  I, for one, think this was the right decision, and hope that the change is permanent.

Its also not without very recent precedent.  Recently the website for The Comics Journal, the supposed high-brow approach to comics (ahem, comix) underwent a change of management, and in that change, they dropped what some described as the worst-of-the-worst when it came to ill will and misplaced anger.  In short, the TCJ Message Board is no more, and the site managers seemed positively relieved.
It was a place that had some virtues but mostly, I think, it was a place where unhappy people went to be even less happy. Its time has more than passed...
At the crux of it, I'm not convinced that giving your more insane and obsessive customers a soapbox on your website from which to spend hours each day complaining is very good business.  Its a bit like asking the crackhead who wanders by your shop to go ahead and come inside every day from open to close on the off chance he might spend some money.

I'm a DC fan, and I find it off putting.  It does not make me want to engage with my fellow fans, and actually kind of makes me dislike my fellow fans.  I'm a DC fan, and I would rather fall into a swarm of bees than spend a week moderating the message boards, or get punched just once in the face rather than partake in a discussion on the message boards.

Frankly, media outlets have tried the whole "community" approach, and it doesn't work very well.  Self-organizing communities seem to do much better** in this regard, and with social applications now freely available all over the place, I don't think DC owes it to anyone to bother with these tools anymore.  After reading about the upcoming Batman release, frankly, I don't care what WildFang666 thinks about the creative team.  I care what I think, or maybe what you guys think, or what folks at the comic shop might say (all trusted sources). 

Look, the internet is absolutely still out there.  Those same few people who decided that the steps of the DC Blog were their hobo camp can claim a WordPress site or go off to Blogger.  But I think I'll be happier if DC takes steps to just let the comics and work speak for itself.  We don't need to know what DarkKnightBlade has to say.  I'm good, thanks.

Will this become a new trend?  Well, I don't see sites that are the business having much luck dropping comments.  The sense of community is part of what makes the site go, but its sad to know how much time must be spent moderating comments (its sort of the depressing factory job of the 21st Century).  But for sites trying to sell an actual product...?  I don't know.  And that product could be anything from comic books to soda to actual news.

I assume the generation that grew up with internet comments as a standard issue part of life will be shocked.  But for some of us who can remember a time when you needed an internet connection and a valid email to get into print or part of a conversation, we remember getting along just fine.  Editors edited and responded to letters, and there was the concept of the crank file.  Sadly, the crank file has become the discussion, and not just in comics.***

So, I vote for keeping it down.  Your primary job is to make comics, not babysit crazy people.

For someone who has embraced the insanity, I recommend Estate 4.1, who posts the best comments from wire services articles.  After you get done weeping for humanity, its actually pretty darn funny.

*I just totally quoted myself.  And that is terrible.

**I think you may have seen how quickly I've clamped down on comments around here when we've had a drive-by troll or two, and there's an astoundingly polite and friendly bunch of commenters on this site... in part due to the site's smallish readership.  Also, note I've patted myself on the back twice now in footnotes.

***CNN - cannot tell you how sad it makes me when you spend time reading Tweets on air or inviting anyone with an iPhone to submit content.


Michael Corley said...

It's an odd thing, forums. They take on a life of their own. The problem (as I see it) is the tiny minority that post every day a tiny subset of them decide that they are now lord and masters of this land and scorch the Earth when anyone dares to log on today and say, "I think Superman walking across the country is kinda neat". I know Scott Kurtz, one of the biggest webcomic creators at turned off his forum because it had become toxic to his 'normal' fans to go there. I wish there was a good solution, but i have one not.

Troll said...

Facebook Comments is suppose to solvethis issue, since it's tied to your FB account. Techcrunch implemented it on its website and the trolls all but dissapeared.

The League said...

Well, with DC it was obviously a tiny minority of the same people for a company that sells millions of comics. There was just no return on investment for keeping the comments alive to cater to those people who were not terribly representative and who clearly didn't understand that this was a privilege, not a right.

I expect that it was hard to get the comments approved up the corporate chain, so getting them removed was an ordeal as well.

Troll said...


The League said...

Having given the article a quick read: I think we're talking about two different things. Because, honestly, I don't know if anonymity was a factor here nor was it the primary issue. I'm not talking about forums where someone logs in as "PatriotAwesome", drops a racist bomb and disappears.

This is people camping out and believing they own the site, that moderating them is invading 1st Amendment Rights, etc..., as Mike described above. Its party guests who came, won't leave, and spend their entire time not just insulting your decor, but clearly are misusing familiar decorating terms.

I do think that linking to real accounts is a deterrent of sorts, but given how easy it is to create an email address and Facebook account and STILL identify yourself as DangerBlade563, its not exactly a lock.

horus kemwer said...

First, great post: deep issue.

Second, it's hard not to agree with "Troll" that anonymity is the problem. Basically, anonymity in the sense that, there is no identity held to task on broader social issues (whether people talk to you at the grocery store, will help you if your car breaks down on the side of the road, will raise a barn if barn-raising is needed), and this lack of accountability aids and abets the ego-feeding, self-satisfaction (presumably) inducing behavior of "trolls."

But League is absolutely right that tying identity to a facebook account (or whatever: I mean I don't have a facebook account, but clearly, my identity is tied at least to my own blog), is a temporary, old-fashioned (?), and, ultimately ineffectual attempt at solving the problem in the age of the interwebs.

Yes, there's a role that social accountability plays in keeping discourse civil. Yes, it turns out that role was good (necessary?). Yes, the internet is amazing, but also yes, there is no obvious way to extend that role to the (crucially!) inherent anonymity of the internet.

So, my best bet (and this is a placeholder for future, better suggestions): (permanently, at least) killing comments entirely is too much, it removes the power of the internet as a universal thought-sharing medium.

Tying identity to some pre-established, corporation-owned, information market (e.g. facebook) is also too much (until they solve their security issues, for sure).

So, here's the intermediary between Scylla and Charybdis I'm advocating for now: stick with the moderator system, but moderate contributors, not comments. Let the moderator / site-owner / whomever decide "who" (not person, but internet "handle") gets to post and who doesn't. Yes, good posters may turn troll, and vice versa, but at least some degree of anonymity will be maintained (we don't need to know the home address of a particular poster, for example), but also some degree of accountability (posting w/ a different handle isn't automatically acceptable).

How much does this change the workload on site administrators? In what realistic sense will their need to monitor every single post actually decrease in order to prevent boring trolls? I've got no idea.

But this is the best I've got right now.

Long live the ongoing, anarchic social experiment that is the interwebs!

The League said...

In some ways, I think we're saying the same thing with our solutions, although I didn't put it in so many words nor did I make the connection in the same way.

The revived DC Letters could be the first step on the way to the moderated/ managed discussion. Its starting from scratch and returning to using modern tech to achieve the ancient art of the letter to the editor, but its also a point from which the company (DC in this case) can figure out what they like about this that didn't work out with blog comments and bulletin boards.

In short, I approve of your plan, and I think with an hour at the white board, somebody could figure out how to make that work.

The biggest concerns I'd see DC having is making the non-participants feel excluded and - once you approve someone, how long before they live to see themself become the villain?

Troll said...

Well, moderation has its problems also. Reddit does this for their sub-sections, and then you get moderators who goes mad with power and censors anyone who disagrees with his or her own views.

Having the "community" self-police might be the best solution, as seen on No, it's not a discussion board per se, but the regular contributors to the site make sure only quality posts are seen. And while they do have moderators, those moderators are elected by the community.

The League said...

Ah, yes. Power mad moderators... well, I would expect that at a company like Time-Warner, they could come up with a criteria for approved, not approved behavior.

It seems the issue (in addition to anonymity) is having an ego involved in the comment section. I'm interested in the model.

I think for community sites like Comic Alliance or group interest sites, that all makes sense. I'm not sure its the right model for a company like DC Comics, who have a product they're selling (that isn't web discussion) makes as much sense.

Anonymous said...

I think they made a good decision. Nothing gets me more depressed than to see something really cool on Youtube and then seeing the hateful, spiteful, trolling comments beneath.

Businesses should just admit (policy-wise, not explicitly to the public) that not all comments are equal and not all commentators are valued the same. I bet that 80% of the trolls that commented on the DC Source don't even buy DC comics. They're general comics fans that just love to snipe commentary on any medium just to hear themselves. No business needs them. They don't contribute to the bottom line and they certainly aren't helping the business.

A gaming forum I am a part of won't let you comment unless you are a paying subscriber to the game. It works out well.


rhpt said...

Just be like me. Never read comments. In fact, I have a Firefox extension that blocks any comments from appearing on any website.

The League said...

I'll never be like you!

Also: this isn't just about me. This is about whether or not its a sound business practice for companies to provide these forums so closely linked to their product and public face.