Site Notes

What if RTH Turned Comments into Letters to the Editor?

By Larry Pattison
Published June 14, 2013

Before I go any further, I would first like to state that I am quite pleased with the 'new' look of Raise the Hammer. I placed quotes around new, because I knew this layout had existed as a Beta version for some time. I am glad it has moved from Beta to production. These visually minor details somehow complete this site.

Secondly, those who have been a part of the RTH community for awhile, know that like any other site that opens their content to commenting, trolls are a breed that brings down the integrity and enjoyment of what is otherwise important and mostly informed commentary.

With these new changes to Raise the Hammer, it prompted me to think about a Twitter account I stumbled upon recently. The user goes by the name 'Don't Read Comments', and the Twitter handle is @AvoidComments.

There are so many gimmick accounts out there that claim to provide inspiration quotes and such, but often I find the real motive behind these inspiritors, is to plug countless other twitter accounts who promise you will get thousands of followers if you follow them. Like all Social Media sites, there is a tonne of crud out there.

But this account intrigued me to read on. I was skeptical and mainly because where RTH is concerned, sometimes the comments have more teeth than the articles itself. However, after reading through a handful of tweets from this person, I was determined to ignore comments sections going forward.

It's hard to stay true to my mid-year resolution to avoid comments, however, when it comes to RTH.

I realize that so many respect this site as a valuable part of our community, and count on the information provided here to keep us informed and engaged in this city we love enough to fight the good fight for, but what if we did away with comments on this site?

"NO!!!" you say, but hear me out.

What if the 'Comments' section was re-named 'Letters to the Editor'? What if everyone who contributed to this site, had to have an account and if you wanted to 'comment', it had to be in the form of a Letter? You'd actually have to take the time to formally write a piece that conforms to Letters guidelines.

If the guidelines are not followed (and there should be a link to those guidelines right beside the words 'Letters to the Editor' at the bottom of each article), it constitutes a Letter being deleted by an editor or perhaps forum moderators.

If your Letter exceeds the word max, then it must be approved as an article on RTH, with a link to the approved article within the Letters section of its related article.

Surely, seeing as though nobody is paid to be editor at RTH, articles that pose 80 comments would be impossible to manage 60 or so letters (weeding out the 20 comments from trolls), so Letters would be published immediately, but it would be easier for admins to delete accounts of those whose presence here is not of a supporting nature or those that continually disregard Letter guidelines set by RTH staff.

All accounts must be real names, with real email addresses, just like Letters to the Editor of any newspaper.

Could this be a way to go for online media? Especially sites like RTH where, for the most part, comment content is of an equal and sometimes even greater value?

Perhaps, in line with ensuring all voices are heard, a new tab could be placed at the top of the RTH header for articles that were never born. Ever felt editors were weeding out information they didn't want the public to be informed of? Have so many things to say but just can't formulate those thoughts into article form?

Perhaps this section could serve as a place for un-edited pieces that never saw the light of day for whatever reason. Either their relevance had passed for a piece written six months after an election that was about an electoral candidate, the piece was an editing nightmare, or what have you.

It could be a way to build further trust amongst readers. Maybe not a lot of people or no one, reads those random thoughts, or maybe someone with the creative will, takes those spewed words and formulates them (giving credit to the original author), to a formulated article.

Just a couple of things to ponder.

I'll leave you with a few tweets from @AvoidComments. I am sure they will get you thinking, if nothing else.

"I saw a sound, well-reasoned argument in an internet comment, and it made me reconsider my position." -- Nobody, ever

"The problem with internet comments is that you can never really know who's saying them." -- Winston Churchill

Nobody on their deathbed ever said, "I wish I had spent more time reading internet comments."

No journalist has ever said, "Good thing that guy left that vitriolic comment -- now I know how much I suck."

Back in the day, we called comments "letters to the editor." Someone read them, picked the best ones, & published them. Many were STILL bad.

Yes, there are comments. No, you're not going to read them.

Seeing a good internet comment is like finding money in your clothes: nice when it happens, but not something to base your life around.

"What an interesting article! I can't wait to read what the average internet denizen thinks about it!" Just stop right there. You're wrong.

You're feeling crappy right now, I can tell. It's probably because you read a comments section.

You don't need to read the comments section to see a group of jerks not listen to each other and waste time. We have congress for that.

Thinking of reading comments? Instead, call your oldest relative. He or she will appreciate your time much more than comments denizens will.

Larry Pattison is a local blogger, life-long resident of Hamilton, and father to two amazing girls. Larry is also an elected member of the HWDSB Board of Trustees for Ward 3.

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By UrbanMom (registered) | Posted June 14, 2013 at 10:44:15

While I support this idea, on the whole, there might be legitimate reasons to use a pseudonym: my discussing things, even seemingly innocuous things, could reflect on my partner and affect his work and the people he works with. Or it might affect my business. I support such things as one way street conversions and extensive bike lanes, but I'd hate to think that by stating my opinion, someone who does not hold that opinion would be prejudiced against me when they were looking to hire someone in my industry.

Just a thought.

Vetted accounts are definitely one way to approach reducing trolling.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 14, 2013 at 11:59:13 in reply to Comment 89539

As the site editor, I can state unambiguously that we will not move to a real-names policy. As you note, there are legitimate reasons to want to keep one's identity private. With the recent public attention on government surveillance of personal online correspondence, the right to privacy will only become more important and (one hopes) valued.

As for moving to a system where all commenters must have registered accounts, that issue has come up before. So far, no consensus has emerged among engaged RTH contributors and readers. Allowing anonymous commenting makes "drive-by trolling" possible, but that kind of trolling is not very hard to control, and the most abusive, persistent trolls on RTH have used registered accounts.

The site also employs measures to mitigate the disruption of anonymous trolling, including spam filtering, comment voting, commenting and voting guidelines developed with the community, and a prevailing culture of civility.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted June 14, 2013 at 15:00:32 in reply to Comment 89540

The writer poses an interesting idea - it's far too easy to be flippant, and perhaps being forced to take the time to formalize a comment would be helpful in some ways (though it could be overkill where simpler responses are concerned). I find that, for myself, when I do take more time to construct a more thorough response, it's both better informed (often taking time for some quick research, which could very well change my thoughts even just a bit) and more neutral in tone.

I find the discussions here are generally very intelligent and "self moderated" to a degree. There are times that people will never agree or find common ground, but that's to be expected.

I do have one criticism, and it's about comments from banned users being deleted. No doubt some of them should be, but not all of those comments are inappropriate or offensive - they may be construed as trolling in some cases, but often they represent a point of view that happens to conflict with the majority opinion. That point of view may be misguided, or misinformed, or biased, or based on incomplete facts... but it may also be valid in some cases. Regardless, I think it does a disservice to the rest of a discussion if that point of view is removed, even if the user has been banned; it often shows an extreme that lends strength to opinions that are based on more valid arguments.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 18, 2013 at 10:53:41 in reply to Comment 89550

I do have one criticism, and it's about comments from banned users being deleted.

All of the recent comments that have been deleted have been from just one individual, a person who regularly tries to infiltrate the site after having been banned over two years ago.

That person was banned after an astonishingly prolific and relentless stream of constant trolling, including dozens of vitriolic comments a day, that rendered the site intolerable and unusable to everyone else.

The individual's personal emails to me were threatening enough that I was advised to notify the police. It was the police officer who notified him that he was banned from the site.

While the initial comments he temporarily sneaks onto the site may seem reasonable, I have observed his M.O. and will not risk this site being hijacked and vandalized again.

For some context, in close to nine years, with thousands of commenters and around 70,000 comments, RTH has only banned three user accounts for repeated, ongoing commenting abuse.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-06-19 06:13:31

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted June 19, 2013 at 14:18:11 in reply to Comment 89577

Thanks Ryan. I wasn't aware this issue went beyond content posted on the site.

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By comment scores--gone? (anonymous) | Posted June 14, 2013 at 13:09:48 in reply to Comment 89540

Hi editor, What happened to the comment scores? I assume that these are being withheld on purpose, and are not seen even when people log in with registered "name". But it would be interesting to read Ryan's reasons for this decision. Has it cut down on competitive comments, so to speak?--Regl'r Reader

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 14, 2013 at 14:28:12 in reply to Comment 89541

I decided to try not displaying them as a pilot project (hey, the City seems to be doing well with them).

My suspicion is that people may be tempted to reify the number of the comment score rather than focusing on its content. Net negative scores still behave the same way to make it easier for people to ignore inappropriate comments, which is the main goal of comment voting.

For comments that aren't identified as inappropriate by the community, the score isn't particularly useful except as an indicator of agreement, which is not what comment voting is for.

I'll keep an eye on the quality of comments, keep an ear out for comments and observations, and review the pilot in a few months.

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By Jay Robb (anonymous) | Posted June 17, 2013 at 11:52:34

To borrow a line from Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen "the true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance; even the most fascinating content, if tied to an anonymous profile, simply won’t be seen because of its excessively low ranking."

I've yet to post an anonymous comment or tweet online (then again I also sign my name to surveys, feedback forms and 360 peer evaluations).

If you've got something to say that you believe in, have the courage of your convictions and put your name to it.

I may not agree with your stand on an issue, but I'll respect you for staking a position. And who wants to spend their days surrounded by people who all think the same way?

I've also found that tuning out anonymous comments is a good way to keep from losing faith in humanity.

For me, the signed letters to the editor in The Spec carry far more weight than the anonymous snark posted at thespec.com and elsewhere online.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted June 18, 2013 at 14:38:22

comment from banned user deleted

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted June 18, 2013 at 14:46:09

comment from banned user deleted

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted June 18, 2013 at 14:50:42

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted June 18, 2013 at 14:54:19

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