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What’s to become of comments

Last week, the Washington Post turned off weblog comments after the paper’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, was virtually lambasted for publishing a clarification that really wasn’t. The paper’s decision traveled across the web at the speed of hands on keyboards, resulting in what David Carr, writing for the New York Times called a “big, viral mess.” Carr, reinforcing the notion that he seriously needs to buy a clue suggests that he welcomes comments, but not really: “And don’t forget that the price of stamps just went up.”

The comment issue is a valid one for both old media monoliths like the Post (and Times) and new media outlets alike. Removing offensive comments that add no value is a labor-intensive, uphill battle. And profane comments tend to germinate like a whack-a-mole, popping up faster than they can be put down. But turning off comments is ending the conversation. It’s a signal that you’re no longer interested in what your audience has to say. And as Dan Gillmor properly taught us all long ago, our audiences are smarter than us. As Amy Gahan notes in her E-Media Tidbits article, “closing off comments… moves the blog further from the realm of conversational media, and toward the traditional ‘I speak, you listen’ publishing model.”

But the Post, as it turns out, didn’t so much as require a valid email address to post comments. No wonder Howell’s non-clarifying clarification proved to be a flame magnet. User registration — requiring commenters to sign their comments — is a no-brainer, but hardly a panacea.

One of the more interesting solutions seems to be the one employed by Metafilter: A US$5 registration fee, plus you have to wait a week before you can comment. This reduces the spur-of-the-moment flame-fests, but surely the community can come up with something more elegant.

Steve Outing, in his E-Media Tidbits article, suggests a user-registration system with a 30-minute time-out before new users can post comments.

Jeff Jarvis explores the “ethic of interactivity” in an easy-to-read Q & A format that’s worthwhile reading and one of the best overall assessments of what went wrong and why it’s crucial to fix it.

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