The struggle for civic comments

On Sept. 16, the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, North Carolina reported that the county board voted to ban Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man from school libraries. As the story hit Twitter (which is where I saw it), the newspaper piece began picking up comments. To this date, 164 comments have been registered. 

While some of these comments may debate the factualness of the board members' votes (who voted up or down on the book banning), most of it was, well, about what you'd expect. 

 The main problem with comments is two-fold, writes Micheal Erard in the New York Times Magazine. One, comments are often placed at the bottom of the story, so people feel generally left out of the debate. Second, rude behavior at a website is a human problem, not one solved by better technology. Human moderators can generally fix that. 

Erard then describes some of the methods to make comments a bit more useful. 

A step in that direction is annotation, in which reactions, corrections and elaborations are placed directly on the text itself, which could, perhaps dangerously, put commenters on the same plane as writers and reporters, who spend days or weeks or months learning about a subject. One example is Medium, which allows readers to make notes at the paragraph level. (Unlike a Wikipedia entry, where users can edit the text, the article remains intact.) Writers might balk at this, but look at it this way: people are more likely to comment on what’s in the text, which may prompt them to actually read it before commenting.
Another is the start-up Rap Genius, a community built initially around annotating rap lyrics. (They’ve expanded to things like legal decisions and poetry.) The premise is that keeping readers and commenters close to the text focuses activity and keeps the discourse informed and civil. There are still people who act like idiots, but much of the time, it’s because they don’t know what the community is trying to achieve. The goal, Rap Genius’s co-founder Tom Lehman said, is to help out people who are making real contributions by defining and rewarding “real contributions” with user badges like “Rap I.Q.”

Moving to civics, the group Peak Democracy helps cities use social media and websites to elicit citizen responses. They appear to be quite successful moderating open forums to insure a diversity of comments. Oftentimes, the group argues, electronic bullies dominate blogs and social forums, intimidating people with real concerns. 

Peak Democracy forces participants to authenticate logins and only allows one comment per topic, which, they say, keeps people on task. 

They also allow city leaders to view comments and votes by segments, like, say geographic area. Let's say the city wanted to put a modern art statute in a neighborhood park. it could take the debate to the web and allow people to comment on the placement and the appropriateness of the statute. If 75 percent of the people have negative comments about the statute, the city may take a very critical look at its placement. However, Peak Democracy allows the city to drill down and potentially find deeper information, like, say, 90 percent of the negative comments came from outside the neighborhood, and most came from other cities. Will that change the tone of the debate? 

Putting more resources in civic online comments isn't a goal shared by everyone. People forget that politics and public affairs issues are supposed to be contentious, argues Zelda Bronstein in Dissent in a critique of the software that later was used by Peak Democracy.

She writes: "No matter how civil, politics always involves a struggle for power, and being in a fight, especially a public fight, is emotionally taxing, even if you win."