Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, Tara Murtha's piece stated that a local columnist slandered her in an Inquirer column. Flowers did not. We regret the error and have updated the story here.
I still subscribe to the weekend print edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. But while there’s nothing quite like snapping crisp pages over a fresh cup of coffee in the morning, a hard copy lacks one of my favorite—by favorite I mean mesmerizing and riddled with psychic pain—parts of reading our city’s paper of record: the trash-talking of Philly.com commenters.
Philly.com is the website for both the Inky and Philadelphia Daily News.
Sometimes, they provide valuable context for stories by posing unanswered questions or writing thoughtful counterpoint. Not every single Philly dot commenter is a racist spewing (woefully predictable) hate speech from behind the cloak of anonymity.
But most are.
Take last weekend’s headlines, for example. It was the usual Philly fare: gunfire, arrests and courtroom updates on grisly murders and foul sex crimes.
I clicked on a story about Lenroy Laurance, a local man found guilty of carjacking, kidnapping, weapons offenses and murdering an innocent 57-year-old woman. In the mugshot accompanying the article, Laurance struck a familiar thug pose: head slightly cocked back, remorseless eyes and a defiant smirk.
Any regular Philly.com reader already knows what to expect when you scroll down.
“Here’s your cage, critter,” writes Burb Guy. “Can’t we just kill these a-holes?” seconds RobertB. “Animals,” writes Marcie. “No respect for life.” Another calls for Jane Goodall since she, you know, worked with chimpanzees.
And so on.
Calling black people animals, references to monkeys, phrases like “welcome to the jungle, baby” and “That’s how it go in da hood” are all standard comments beneath crime stories on Philly.com when the perp is black.
And we haven’t even gotten to the anal rape fantasies that regularly litter sexual offender and police corruption stories. I cringe as bloodlust-y readers work themselves into a lather writing about how they can’t wait for the offender to learn what “being a bitch” is from “Big Bubba.”
I have friends who’ve sworn off the stuff. They say it’s too depressing so they go the way of the ostrich. So why do I read them?
Averting my eyes is not my style. I read grand jury reports and listen to police radio. I need to know how grimy people can get when things like shame, embarrassment and last names aren’t part of the picture. It’s an occupational hazard.
My obsession has only increased since I crossed through the looking glass. A few months ago, a Philly.com columnist wrote a really classy piece addressing a column I wrote that disputed another local columnist’s assertion that women invite rape through sartorial choices. She basically wrote that I have the mentality of a gang rapist. It was kind of cool—being written about by this particular columnist is proof you’re on the right path in this town. The bonus was I got to watch as some of my beloved Philly dot commenters alternately defended or eviscerated me in the comment gallery.
Anyway, even if you don’t find yourself the actual subject, the comments aren’t that depressing. Despite a recent Salon.com piece that extrapolated from reading Philly dot commenters that “discussions about race in Philly are usually met with a deafening backlash from local whites,” Philly dot commenters don’t reflect society, or Philadelphians, at large.
On one hand, they’re even worse than you know. A “filth filter” loaded with terms— including creatively spelled ethnic slurs for the clever racist—prevents the most offensive posts from appearing at all. On the other hand, experts on Internet equality estimate that approximately 1 percent of participants write most of the comments. A standard theory holds that 90 percent of readers never comment, 9 percent comment every once in a while, and 1 percent comment incessantly.
Wendy Warren, vice president and editor at Philly.com, says that sounds about right.
For example, in the first half of this month (up to Oct. 17), the most active commenter posted 319 times. “Then we have a group of about 100 that commented 50 or more times. And then everyone else is less than that,” says Warren. That’s out of approximately 3,200 comments per day—way too much volume to moderate effectively without a dedicated staff or outsourcing the task.
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