Thursday, December 2, 2010

Multimedia journalism and the Internet commenter

Over the past few years, the bourgeoning field of Internet journalism has also become associated with a somewhat more unsavory aspect of the internet: the internet commenter. Formerly relegated to chatrooms and forums in the 1990’s, the opening up of comments to the public on most journalistic blogs and news sites has changed the public’s perception on the national discourse in recent years. What was once treated as an anomaly on the internet, as well as a source of mostly negative opinionating, is now a commonality that has changed the way some stories are reported or filtered, for better or worse. The intention of many sites in opening up comments is to act as a kind of instant form of crowdsourcing, but sometimes this plan can backfire.

A recent NPR story dealt with the kind of people that feel it necessary to make their opinions known to complete strangers about even the most remote of topics. The NPR story mainly dealt with an enterprise that began with the literary-based website McSweeney’s to do regular feature stories on certain Internet commenters and their online habits. Another recent article on the tech blog Gizmodo outlined an etiquette guide for commenters to follow if they are to remain in a civil discourse with the journalists and authors that they regularly engage in conversation. With all of this interest taken in the behavior of the readers, it seems essential to stop and take stock of the communities that form in these environments.

When most people think of the typical internet commenter, our society has cast the average commenter on YouTube as the nadir of Western Civilization, where comments can range from borderline illiterate, to overtly hostile, to openly racist or misogynistic. In other more journalistic-leaning sites, such as conservative news aggregate, the contributors are certainly more literate and most likely older than the average YouTube commenter, however the comments tend to lean towards the vitriolic in regard to the viewpoints of opposing political parties. On The Huffington Post, comments can become so overwhelming in their numbers that keeping track of various trains of thought on the threads becomes impossible. And then on top of that, you have the notorious “trolls” who just show up to make everyone mad and contribute nothing to the conversation.

Despite these intimidating, impenetrable networks, there are still some areas of the internet where commenting is still useful and mostly a positive experience. The political website,, features well-moderated comments that identify contributors by political affiliation. The Awl, a New York-based news and culture blog, has a fairly well-informed and intelligent commenter base. Several of the offshoots of the Gawker empire, such as the sports site Deadspin and the aforementioned Gizmodo, have informed and sophisticated readerships. The comedy/viral video website Videogum, has an especially active and witty community where comments on viral internet videos are jumping off points for debates on literature, science, religion and philosophy. If journalistic sites want their content to be taken more seriously by their audience, they would do well to imitate the commenting communities in these examples.

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