A Brief History of Online Commenting Norms

The difficulties of comment management have been known for some time. What follows is a brief history [though I may update it later.]

Esther Dyson, in her popular-selling book Release 2.0 about the emerging Internet a decade ago (predating the current trend of "2.0" marketing) considered anonymous communities online. Whereas ad hoc Internet communities seemed to thrive with anonymity, the most influential online community of all— the San Francisco-based WELL– was nurtured by the philosophy that all identities were to be known, and participants were encouraged to meet each other in real life. Founder Stewart Brand felt very strongly in the philosophy of You Own Your Own Words — that each person would have to post with their real identity. In fact, as Dyson recalled, a WELL experiment into anonymity proved disastrous. We can probably conclude that the natural evolution of communities is to go from anonymity to familiarity, and not the other around.

In 2004, NYU adjunct professor and popular tech conference speaker* Clay Shirky had the luxury of hindsight to compare the software of a decade before (mailing lists, newsgroups, BBS's) forums with contemporary social software (see Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software). The earlier generation of social software had engineered common spaces, which invariably invited someone to "flame" the list and gain attention. By contrast, "Weblogs and wikis are proof that you can have broadly open discourse without suffering from hijacking by flamers, by creating a social structure that encourages or deflects certain behaviors."

But this pronouncement was a bit premature. As weblogs grew more popular, certain blogs became more popular than others, and then became veritable communal spaces. Newspapers especially had forgotten past experiments with online comments and were sold on the vision that blogs were bulletproof. In January 2006, the Washington Post had a well publicized meltdown when ombudsman Deborah Howell was viciously attacked on the Post's blogs over her phrasing of a partisan aspect of the Jack Abramoff scandal. She wrote aftewards: "Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down."

The Post convened a panel on "Ethics & Interactivity" for an online chat, inspiring numerous spinoff conversations. The mailing list for the Online News Association was more sanguine, with its members asking, why does no one ever learn? (see Vin Crosbie in Online Journalism Review: Time to Get Tough: Managing anonymous reader comments) The analysis here at Civilities, in Code of Conversations was that few of the people who promoted online conversations had taken the time to explain what their purpose was. If social/emotional, then controversy and flame wars would follow. By contrast, here we are focused on what are constructive conversations. And thus we need a Lessigian code (i.e., a set of principles implemented by software code) to best govern it.

Lessigian code is what brought us Creative Commons, after all.

*Esther Dyson is of course also a popular tech conference speaker. Those familiar with my writing style should have figured out by now that I pretend as if I'm writing for Harold Ross of the The New Yorker. ("Who he?")