(NOTE: I cross-posted this from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog.)
Yesterday, at 4:15 ET, the editors of WashingtonPost.com indefinitely shut down comments on one of the paper’s weblogs, post.blog. Jim Brady, executive editor of WashingtonPost.com explained that this was due to profanity and hate speech evident in the torrent of contentious comments about the Jan. 15 column by ombudsman Denise Howell concerning the paper’s coverage of the Jack Abramoff story.
I can completely understand this decision, although I’m not sure whether it was the right move…
On the one hand, the Post is a high-profile established news organizations which needs to maintain its reputation for propriety. Also, selectively identifying and removing truly profane or offensive comments in the midst of a deluge is not only labor-intensive, but also a losing battle. You just can’t keep up. In addition, flame wars tend to beget flame wars if you allow one to go unchecked, people start to think it’s acceptable conduct for that venue (despite policy statements, admonitions from moderators etc.)
But on the other hand: Closing off comments to a blog where discourse had been the norm is harsh and chilling. I think it can irreparably damage relationships cultivated with a participatory audience. It moves the blog further from the realm of conversational media, back toward the traditional “I speak, you listen” publishing model. As this indicates, it can also spawn wider dissemination of negativity. So this move can appear like a great step backwards, even if it offers some immediate relief.
Finally, flame wars are inevitable in any type of conversational media and they always burn themselves out, usually pretty quickly. They’re something you have to learn to roll with and cope with, not panic over.
Perhaps a less draconian approach might have been to close comments on the relevant postings only, and to moderate comments to the blog for a time until things settled down. Let the conversation move on.
I hope this move turns out to be temporary. We’ll see.