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Nadworny: Online Comments

One of the great promises of all of our new technologies was that it would enable people to engage in concrete discussions and sharing of ideas, no matter where they lived.

Social media and Web sites would expand both knowledge and connection and, the thinking goes, lead to a better society.

In reality, we have online comment sections, or message boards, giving people the ability to comment on stories, posts and other content. In theory this should be a good thing: allowing people to actively participate in discussions, in real time. It can take a passive activity – like listening to the radio, for instance - and make it interactive, by allowing listeners to contribute to the story in the comments section.

For Example, a recent Vermont Edition about Lyme disease sparked extensive listener participation from people who were clearly passionate about this issue. What got so many people going here was that the program was skeptical about the belief that there is a long-term form of Lyme disease and many people who claimed to have long-term Lyme disease disagreed.

It was much more interesting than the typical online comment bashing you see in many other news Web sites. From the Washington Post to Politico and the Drudge Report, comment sections seem to be more about giving people a forum in which to vent their aggression, all of them getting angrier with every comment, than providing a place of meaningful political discourse.

Of course, we here in Vermont are not immune to that either. Every once in a while, one of our major news sources will post an article that has the same effect on people that the moon has on Werewolves. People start howling online. A while back, to its benefit, the Burlington Free Press made it mandatory to use a Facebook account when posting a comment. The thought was that this would eliminate anonymous – some would say cowardly - commenters. And it has cleaned up the comments some, but not entirely.

Comment sections aren’t all bad, though. Message boards for technical help, like computers, are a boon to people looking for assistance. It’s hard to imagine what we’d do without them. Comment sections for those with specific interests, like gardening, cooking or other hobbies, provide a wealth of advice and information. It’s when you move into content around beliefs, like politics, that things can get ugly.

Personally, I’d love to see news and political sites make people pay to comment. After all, newspapers are struggling financially and even though some are charging to view pages –it isn’t very hard to get around those paywalls. So I think papers should make comments only available to online subscribers. Or introduce a gradual fee scale for non-subscribers. For commenting on one article, say, the first comment might cost 50 cents, the second one a dollar – then double the last fee for every additional comment. Our news sources would make money; and we’d definitely read fewer rants.

If you think this is a terrible idea, you can now go online and let me know with a comment on my commentary. Be careful though, I may comment back.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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