After turning off all site comments on Tuesday, AOL-owned Engadget today flipped the comment switch back on, ending a two-day hiatus resulting from its editors seeing too many comments that were “mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations.”
Engadget columnist Michael Gartenberg expressed his discontent with the comments that followed his recent iPad editorial in a Tweet: “Amused. Bash me on @Engadget column. Suggest my parents were not married prior to birth, suggest I be fruitful & multiply. enclose your CV.”
With traditional news outlets declining and enthusiast blogs like Engadget on the rise, the implications of closing comments reflect how the stampede of online discourse can sometimes be too much for even mature, full-time blogs to endure. According to Alexa, Engadget today ranks 195 in the nation and 384 in the world for Internet traffic. It recently launched mobile applications for iPhone and Blackberry. It produces its own weekly podcasts and monthly TV shows (Edited per Zack’s comment). This is a full-time media company in all respects and an influential one at that – The AFP wrote a story on Engadget’s comment disabling.
Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky explains why things got out of hand in a Tweet: “I don’t think it’s about the class of the readership, it’s about scale.”
Scale is certainly an issue, but it shouldn’t excuse community behavior. Especially for a technology site like Engadget, you’d think that its die-hard community would be populated by primarily educated (either by trade or academically) and at least civil readers. Surely most are, but what caused Engadget to call “time-out” demonstrates how online media-enabled free speech can unveil the worst in us.
Defamatory or threatening reader feedback is nothing new. Print media has dealt with it from the beginning (and the feedback inspired new publications with alternative views), but there was some effort required to write the letter and put it in the mail. Editors had choices about what they wanted to publish. On the contrary, online media provides a fantastic opportunity for people to share their thoughts and opinion with little barrier – Just ID yourself with a pseudonym, write your thoughts and they will be published immediately. Instead of rising to the occasion of opportunity, participants in a massive community like Engadget have failed over and over: Engadget also shut off comments in 2005; competitor Gizmodo warned its readers against poor commenting practices in October 2009. (Thanks to Gizmodo’s Wilson Rothman for clarifying that they have never turned off comments.) Surely some of this is due to spammers, but some of it is also due to the immature. Both threaten productive, democratic discourse.
I don’t blame Engadget for taking drastic actions. I don’t know if it was the only way to settle the circus, but it seems to be effective so far. The unfortunate lesson here is that the good comes with the bad. Yes, we have more opportunity than ever to express our opinions in online media, but not all of us exercise the best judgment or honor the opportunities that are afforded to us.
Sure, we’re talking about a tech blog today, but as we progress toward more transparent, democratic discussions online for other topics – politics, education, healthcare – we have to consider if it’s worth a scenario where the comments can’t just be turned off.