Column: Online comment moderation leads to ethical dilemma
Apr. 26, 2011
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Full disclosure: I have a large ego. This large ego leads me to believe my opinions - and justifications behind them - are perfectly solid and reasonable. This alarmingly narcissistic belief naturally led me to wanting to be a columnist; what better outlet could there be than a 600-word slot in a student newspaper?
This obsession with selling my opinions of course makes me a hawk of my comment sections, an unhealthy habit I told myself I wouldn't ever begin, but alas, the thrill is cathartic. Despite rarely getting comments on my columns, I preoccupy myself with the few I get. And oh the entertainment I get from them.
I haven't quite decided my favorite kind of comment yet. Originally I got enjoyment out of well-written comments with critical intentions; I liked that people wanted to participate in the Forum, I enjoyed that I could respond back in a conversational way. After all, ego aside, that's why I applied to be a columnist. I wanted to pimp out ideas and talk about them with people who might have had things to say in response.
I've had positive comments otherwise, too. "aquarius" said he/she/zir appreciated my writing! How sweet! How thoughtful. As time went on, though, I began to love comments that made no sense, whose intention was to take a steaming crap on my column, or me in general.
I've had some highlights along the way, too. I've been called a prude, as if that person knew the ins and outs of my sexual endeavors. It's been questioned why my columns were even allowed to be printed (which isn't to say I disagree). One person, apparently blown away at the subject matter of my column, suggested I Google the term "self hate," because I apparently embodied it perfectly. What a treat! Keep up the good writing.
Seriously though, personal afflictions aside, questions about comment section content, and implicitly, the moderation of that content, should be something we question.
This isn't to say I should have someone protecting me, or any columnist or writer, from rejection. That's the point of a Forum section. That's why comment sections exist — to extend conversation, to deepen thought, to broaden perspective. I want someone to lay it on me if I'm being an idiot, and luckily for me and my slowly growing maturity, I've had that happen before.
Whether to reject a comment from a moderator's perspective, though, is a tricky question that I don't think lies simply in the detection of a no-no word or a pornographic post written in Cyrillic.
While I'm not naïve enough to believe the deletion of comments by site owners is an affront to First Amendment rights (hint: it's not), I do question the extent to which those moderating comments have control over the taste or opinion of the comments to be moderated. I'm not purporting to be at the front lines of the digi-sphere, protecting those whose intent online is merely to incite hate speech.
I'm merely saying I have a general suspicion of web owners having the private discretion to determine what is seen in the public sphere, their reasoning not to be questioned. I'd certainly rather there be a person moderating comments, rather than, say, a program written to detect bad words. But I am hesitant to accept that it's up to one person's taste and perspective to be the gatekeeper to public conversation.
I realize this is overly ideal — in the end, comment sections are going to be largely plagued by trolls, assholes with racist bents and people merely with the intention of pissing us all off. I'm not advocating for some pure, rational school of thought. Ultimately, comment sections are just Beliebers saying they think Gaga's new video "totally sucks."
But, I do think it's worth calling into question what our standards are for content moderation. What is acceptable, what are our criteria for moderation? I doubt there's a good answer, so until then I'll continue my Google search for self-hate in my adventure towards self-realizations.