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Irresponsible Media: Syracuse.com and Civil Conversation in Syracuse

Last night I ranted on Twitter, just a little bit, about something Syracuse.com has been doing regularly for some time now. They will, about once a day, run a ‘Your Comments’ story highlighting comments on stories they’ve run earlier. Here is the one I was reacting to last night. Nearly all of the comments on Syracuse.com are made by folks with pseudonymous usernames. Like many web comment sections, ‘discussions’ after stories tend to be dominated by the loudest, angriest, nastiest voices.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what’s going on at these boards, including writing an article about it with a colleague of mine. I’ve come to see these comments sections as a site of competition between regular posters to make the most outrageous post. It’s championship trolling, and you win by being meaner than all the other competitors. Users have long rewarded one another for the meanest posts, with ‘likes’ when Syracuse.com allowed them, or with positive feedback in the form of ‘+1’ comments or ‘right on!’ sort of replies. You can see a hierarchy of posters, some who are considered clever by many, and others who are regularly attacked for their views. My take is that most of the ‘top posters’ are the meanest, most reactionary readers who seem to devote the most time to crafting their forum identity.

I don’t really expect Syracuse.com to do much about that, and they’ve always been pretty good about deleting the most blatantly bigoted posts and banning the most regular offenders. The competition was contained to the comments sections, and you could pretty easily ignore it if you weren’t an interested sociologist like me. But, now, that’s changed.

When Syracuse.com starts rewarding posters by highlighting comments in later ‘news’ stories (they show up in the news feed just like everything else, and @syracusedotcom tweets them out) the community of posters steps up its game, trying to get the status attached to being shared. Unfortunately, the game they play is mean spirited and depressing. Are all the comments that Syracuse.com privileges mean and ignorant. No. Is that a pretty good way to get noticed, and elevated. Yes, I’d argue that’s a pattern I see. I think that Syracuse.com shares stories they know will upset their easily angered commenters as a way to get page views, and then they write about comments, the more provocative the better, as a way to get more page views, and then they start over. They’ve got to convince potential advertisers this is a page people see.

(The “Ha ha ha” which is the first highlighted in the story I shared above is a great example of the rude condescension that regularly appears in the comments, and sure enough, Syracuse.com put it in a post they then shared on Twitter.)

You might say these things could just be ignored, and maybe that’s true. It’s less true now that one of the primary media sources in the city is privileging the condescending, mean spirited, blather of pseudonymous posters and making sure it becomes part of the civic conversations we have in this place. As a transplant to the Syracuse area, I know that my impression of this city has been negatively affected by the regularly disgusting, negative comments on those boards. I should know better because I’m always teaching about and striving for representative samples when I try to learn about social life. Syracuse.com certainly is not a representative sample of this city, and I’ve come to know many people who are very optimistic about this place. Unfortunately, I’d guess very few of them take the time to combat the angry trolling on Syracuse.com. Quite frankly they are doing more important, good, cool things. Syracuse.com does not help this city, or people working to make it a good place to live, when they give these comments such visibility.

It’s a shame. It should stop. Syracuse.com should be more responsible.

Some extra comments. The Post Standard employs very good journalists, many of whom I follow on Twitter and have interacted with quite a bit. This is not a problem with their work, which I often find really wonderful. This is the negative outcome of a desperate media company trying to survive and taking what I’d call the low road.

Syracuse.com did respond to my Tweets, and asked that I email them about comment moderation. I will.