Commentary: A Higher Standard for Blog Comments?

January 10, 2012

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Read, react, write, post. Brilliantly simple yet bearing the potential for snags. Kerry Trotter addresses the culture of commenting on blogs, and proposes a self-imposed breather before we hit “submit.”

The request was innocuous enough. 

Man-up, men. Find your purpose and passion. Be better fathers, husbands, workers, servants of God.

But oh—Oh!—how it was misunderstood. 

The author who penned the October 11 blog titled “Let’s Get Our Act Together, Fellas,” which posited the above message of self-improvement, unwittingly found himself in the blog commenting equivalent of a hornet’s nest.

The article racked up dozens of comments in no time, usually a good sign. But many missed the point the author was making, instead heading on a decidedly un-Catholic tangent. Word on Fire staff ultimately made the call to remove the comment box on that particular blog, halting the conversation and allowing us to catch our breath.

Commenters attacked the author, each other, the Church, social movements; the truly nasty comments were not approved and never appeared on the site. A few that made the cut still managed to get readers worked up. 

“I’m beginning to think that I should stop relying on this website for insight just like I’ve stopped relying on many others,” wrote one frustrated participant.

Oh dear, I thought. This is not good. 

The issue was that well beyond these particular comments—well beyond Word on Fire’s blog—the culture of commenting on all sites needs a whistle and some time in the penalty box. <Phweet!> Unnecessary roughness. Two minutes. Every last one of us.

We’re relatively new to this interface, which isn’t an interface at all, but provides us an easy forum for critique, finger-pointing and postulating where the only reprisal is, what, an unhappy emoticon from another commenter? Please. It’s too facile. I’d like to think one might be more judicious with their words if looking another in the eye, but the state of modern political discourse (and witnessing a few parking lot fender bender meltdowns) has me thinking otherwise.

I love blog comments. I love writing them, I love reading them, I love seeing the authentic connections and discussions that arise from them. But I also bristle at them, the ease at which they’re posted, the haste with which they’re composed.

The newspaper equivalent of a comment thread are the “letters to the editor.” And even then the comments comprise the opinions of only those who have the time and wherewithal to craft a letter, and who pass through the editorial board’s culling process to display a fair representation of the populace. Now anyone with 30 seconds and some WiFi can offer their opinion, but that, on its face, is a beautiful thing.

But that beautiful thing can get ugly fast, and given our policy of removing the downright mean comments from blog posts, we’re exercising a little censorship for the sake of goodness, for goodness sake. But we would prefer not to. This is a Catholic blog, so shouldn’t we all step it up a little?

Consider this a call to action, readers—a sort of “Comment unto others” manifesto. WWJC(omment)? Would there be name-calling, snarkiness, or mean spirited rants? I’m guessing no. 

We Catholics have to be our own best advertisement. The Church is in the midst of a bit of a P.R. overhaul, and while the doctrine, dogma and position on social issues haven’t changed, its communion with the secular world, and with itself, is shifting. It’s not changing in the face of criticism, hardly, but simply striving to demonstrate to the detractors what is so darn good about the faith in the first place.

So when a skeptic or an interested party encounters one of the Catholicism’s assets, the experience is quickly sullied with a mean or easily misinterpreted comment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking that commenters be muzzled, or that you should not be able to express your thoughts, as I am a writer, a bit of a skeptic, and a proponent of free speech, so I embrace a colorful comment as much as the next gal. My request is that we all be a little kinder, a little more careful with our words, a little more Christian in how we offer criticism and portray the Church. 

Or think about it this way—if this were a spoken conversation, say at a restaurant where folks at nearby tables could eavesdrop, would we engage in a little self-editing so as to give those within earshot a better impression of who we are and what we believe? Maybe? Yes? No? Just food (ahem) for thought.

I’ve made my living writing so I not only expect but invite comments on my work, and, trust me, comments have not been all positive. But the ones that do critique, that find fault in my words but offer thoughtful suggestions on how I might correct my mistakes or improve my style? Those I welcome. Father Barron gave a sermon a couple of months ago where the takeaway was (and I’m paraphrasing) we can only critique others as far as we are able to help them. This naturally judgmental soul took that one to heart. 

One comment on a recent article of mine simply said “junk.” Okay, fine, you didn’t like it, I’m used to that, but why? Give me reasons, tell me where I erred, guide me in being better. And, for the benefit of all of us, be kind about it. 

The problem with the comments on “Let’s Get Our Act Together, Fellas” was not that they lacked possible solutions to the trend of which the author wrote, it’s that some of the solutions offered were anathema to Catholic teaching and to Word on Fire’s mission, thus putting a stain on much of what we stand for. The discourse was for the most part civil and the opinions varied—the perfect formula for a proactive discussion. But they took an unsettling turn, one I couldn’t help but feel would not be taken if some of these commenters were discussing this issue in person.

Caleb Hanie comes to mind as an admittedly farfetched example. Any of you Chicagoans and/or sports enthusiasts out there know him as the maligned back-up quarterback for the Bears, pilloried for swiftly dismantling the good, Super Bowl-bound groundwork Jay Cutler laid before a thumb injury sidelined him. Sports radio call-in shows are the audible version of unchecked blog commenting—everyone’s a critic, everyone’s an expert, and everyone’s anonymous. And Hanie, poor, poor Hanie—he’s a hack, he stinks, my toddler could throw better than him, they’d say. Would they utter those words to Hanie’s face? Without a security detail? While attempting to land a 50-yard spiral? Methinks not.  

But I digress and I’m not, to borrow a phrase, casting stones. The vast majority of those who comment on our blogs and videos have wonderful, insightful, very un-sports radio-like things to say—positive in numbers that I would wager trump those of most websites. Keep it up, we love hearing from you. And those who have critical things to say, also keep it up, this is meant to be a discussion, a learning tool, a mission. We all crave critique, as it’s the most effective path to improvement. But we simply request that comments bear the decency a conversation might have if it was shared in person—with respect for yourself, respect for the person with whom you disagree, and with respect for the reason why we’re all here on this blog in the first place, the Catholic Church.

And now, let the constructive criticism fly. I can take it.

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