The apocalypse is surely approaching, as I ready my hands for another gripping blog post — the first time this has happened all year, and my fingers are struggling a bit with this new task, like a pubescent boy fumbling with a bra strap. So bear with me if I ramble a bit; like that boy, it might take some time for me to get to the goods. It doesn’t help that it’s barely past 6:30am and my coffee cup isn’t refilling itself without the intervention of my fumbling fingers… which are writing this blog post. Duh.
Okay, so yesterday a pillar of the tech blogosphere/websiteosphere (I don’t even know what to call websites these days anymore, since most of them are blog-like), Engadget, shut down comments on its stories. As explained to VentureBeat by Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Topolsky, the decision was made because of a recent shift in the tone of comments, spurred largely by an influx of new visitors who found their way to the site because of the iPad unveiling. Now, apart from concluding that the iPad is an inherently evil device created to brainwash hipsters the world over, I’m forced to think about whether shutting these abusive commenters out entirely is really the right decision for Engadget.
See, I’ve been working in video games for a long time. There aren’t too many game-related forums out there that don’t occasionally — or regularly — devolve into sixth-grade playgrounds, with personal attacks on other users echoing through the digital air. It’s possible that my time spent trying to rehabilitate trolls — or to otherwise peacefully coexist with them — while arguing whether Fantasy Creature X could actually take down Hero Y with Feat Z and Weapon of Awesome Power +2 has desensitized me to the more vile of commenters. I’ve come to accept that anonymity, when combined with a group of idiots, tends to create some new breed of superidiot.
Topolsky’s thinking is that by turning off comments, he’s, “hoping they’ll get bored and decide to stop commenting.” That’s absolutely a possibility; these superidiots, although exceptionally gifted at spewing verbal vomit, surely have short attention spans — I liken them to those fast zombies in Dawn of the Dead, bound to be distracted by some other target that zips past their view. They’ll go complain somewhere else (via @dsilverman), they’ll go be turds on Xbox Live, harass their fellow Tauren on World of Warcraft, push over seniors at the grocery store… whatever. Or let’s say these superidiots are, like, even more advanced zombies — they’re angered by Engadget’s efforts to thwart their attempts at intelligent conversation, and feasting on commenters on other websites just won’t sate their hunger.
At some point, Engadget will turn comments back on. Apple will eventually announce the iHat (a hat I just made up that beams movies directly to your head but still has no USB port), and the superidiots will once again catch a glimpse of a shiny “Comment” link at Engadget. What then? They could come back with greater fury. I’ll agree with the Houston Chronicle’s Dwight Silverman (yes, sir, you get two links in one post!) that moderating the comments is really the only way to go from here. It requires a commitment from Engadget, either to devote internal resources to monitoring all comments or by enlisting the help of trustworthy people within the community to police the superidiots. As Topolsky said himself in that VentureBeat piece, Engadget can handle the flamewars. If it’s just a matter of cutting off outright offensive comments and personal attacks, the resources required to moderate user contributions is minimal.
We’ll see how it all plays out over the next couple of weeks. It’s possible that the trolls will move on and find a new home. In that case, Engadget looks really smart, making a bold stand against internet idiocy and ignorance. But if these particular trolls are the grudge-holding type, they’ll likely be waiting for the minute comments are turned back on. At that point, Engadget has to decide whether to abolish comments altogether or just to start moderating them more actively.
As always, I welcome your thoughts in our comments — don’t screw with me or I’m shutting them off — via email or on Twitter! Until summer, when I write another post! 🙂