PW's Tara Murtha Can't Stop Reading Philly.com Commenters

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Oct. 19, 2011

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Warren says the anonymous commenter problem, which she says she thinks and talks about all the time, is enough to drive her “completely insane.”

“Commenting on new stories is a fantastic ability. I’ve worked in journalism for two decades,” she says. “And for most of that time, we’ve controlled the conversation … but I’m disappointed by people who use it to spread hate.”

Comments have gotten so predictably odious that Philly.com doesn’t even bother opening a comment gallery beneath some stories anymore. Warren says the good news is that anonymous commenters tend to be uniformly disgusting everywhere, not just in Philly.

“I’ve talked to Seattle, Washington, Miami and I don’t think we have it worse than anywhere else,” says Warren, who points out that in Miami, the hate speech tends to be anti-Latino, and in areas with Native Americans, it tends to be anti-Native American—indicating that comments might better reflect unequal Internet access and cultural norms of Internet use than the overall perspective of real-life residents.

“We are all struggling with how to involve the reader and also make it a positive experience,” says Warren.

That said, is it time to do away with anonymous online commenters? Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, a frequent object of online vitriol, says yes in language that wouldn’t have made it through the filth filter. Bykofsky calls them “fucking, no-good, motherless, shit-heel yellow curs.” And “gutless cocksuckers” who “shit on people.”

Since he’s a columnist, Bykofsky is frequently attacked personally. He’s a white guy, so he doesn’t get called an animal; attacks on him are mostly of the ageist variety, asking about his Metamucil intake and the like. “I have publicly complained that Philly.com allows these anonymous puke-eaters to defame the solid, hard, serious work done by our staff (not just me),” writes Bykofsky. “We would NEVER allow that in a letter to the editor.” Bykofsky adds that his beef is mostly with the anonymity.

Bykofsky’s not the only journalist on 400 N. Broad St. who feels this way.

“There is a vast difference between freedom of expression and the smearing of every vapid impulse all over the Internet,” wrote Inky columnist Karen Heller last year, “Though the latter activity appears to prevail.”

Allison Steele, an Inky crime writer on the police beat who writes stories that typically draw racist comments, admits she usually doesn’t bother to read them. She says that’s because basically, all the comments are the same.

But she believes anonymous comments should be allowed. “We get tips from anonymous sources all the time. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar, so you have the person who really does have something to add to the discussion [but] for whatever reason they don’t feel safe doing that unless they’re protected,” reasons Steele, adding that she does religiously read comments on weather stories and points out that Philly dot commenters can be straight-up hilarious when they’re not being downright disgusting.

Last summer, two articles in the American Journalism Review epitomized the pros and cons. First, editor and senior vice president Rem Rieder announced that the era of anonymous online commenters should be over. That piece garnered a thoughtful response from journalism professor Bill Reader, who reported that the right of Bykofsky’s “fucking no-good motherless shitheel yellow curs” to spew anonymously online is as American as it gets. “Anonymous speech is exactly what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind,” wrote Reader.

The Tea Party vibe in the argument notwithstanding, it makes sense. Should we all lose the right—maybe I should say privilege—to anonymously comment on newspaper sites because a small number of us are hateful awful people?

I don’t know. All I know is I can’t stop reading it.

In any case, the real debate isn’t philosophical—it’s practical. What paper has the resources to monitor an average of two comments per minute around the clock?

Certainly not Philly.com.

Soon, they won’t have to. Warren says anonymous playtime for Philly dot commenters is coming to an end. The site is already testing a new moderation system that would require commenters to sign in through Facebook accounts. There will be a tip line for genuine leads but other than that, no anonymity.

I have to admit part of me is disappointed, even though this is probably a great step for the 99 percent—the would-be commenters scared off by the elite 1 percent hogging up the bandwidth. And I’ll be happy to have all that time I spend with my eyes glazed over clicking through pages of comments back.

That means I can spend more time lurking over at PhiladelphiaSpeaks, which will surely experience a spike in membership when the new Philly.com system is introduced.

I’ll see you there.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. steveeboy said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:26AM

“so, when stu writes yet another "column" in a long line of rants against cyclists where he smears us all as dangerous sidewalk riding outlaws, pointing out that he sounds like Grampa Simpson in need of an enema is out of bounds...

But, Stu can refer to people who call him on his BS as:

"“fucking, no-good, motherless, shit-heel yellow curs.” And “gutless cocksuckers” who “shit on people”?????

Well, I guess I need to step my game up when dealing with this asshole, dickhead, cock-sucking, old and withered piece of shit.

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2. Hortense said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:43AM

“I read these every day as well and usually I don't make any comments because I can't even begin to think about how to respond to some of the ridiculous things people will say. There is small group of frequent commenters who bring race into absolutely everything, even when there is no reason to. I remember a very brief article about a middle aged woman being found dead in a courtyard in center city. There was no other information than her approximate age and the time and location they found her. And people immediately started leaving comments about how it was "just more black violence," and other things that I would be too embarrassed to repeat, even anonymously. The article never mentioned the victims race or even insinuated that she had been murdered. And it turned out she wasn't murdered at all, she was homeless and had not gotten proper medical care and died of a treatable illness, but at the time that was all the information the journalist had. It's almost like they were reading...”

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3. Hortense said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:58AM

“...the news with the intention of saying something racist, like they woke up, got on the computer and said "well this is what I want to say today, now which one of these articles best supports my racist views?" I really believe most of these people do not actually live in Philly, if that's really how you feel than why would you? They must be so miserable and enraged all the time, I mean pretty much anywhere you go in our city you're going to be required to interact with someone who is of a different racial background than you. Maybe I will start commenting more, just to help balance the argument and help like minded people not feel intimidated out of saying what they think. But it's hard to know what to say when the arguments against you are baseless, illogical and just ridiculous.”

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4. cn2004 said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 12:35PM

“I notice that you refer to may comments as being "racist." But i also notice that you don't refer to them as being "wrong."”

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5. Vic Livingston said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 02:15PM

“It is the opinion of this extrajudicially persecuted and "blog-spammed" veteran Philly area journalist that the most venal of this comments emanate from military contractor psyops units -- whose mission is to bury, ridicule and obscure the comments of so-called "targeted individuals" deemed to be "dissidents" or undesirables. When I tried to post this comment to the website of Poynter.org, I got an almost instantaneous message that I was being banned from posting any further comment to that site -- what I believe was even more draconian military contractor interception and censorship. I have written a series of articles documenting this covert media manipulation regime -- paid for with taxpayer multibillions:
nowpublic(dot)com/world/u-s-govt-censors-internet-political-speech-fraud-deception”

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6. Monica Yant Kinney said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 02:23PM

“Hey Tara, thanks very much for writing this. What is often lost in discussion about the loutish commenters is the impact of their venom on unsuspecting innocent parties -- regular joes subjects of our stories and columns. I try to remember to warn those who allow me into their lives, but sometimes forget and then feel lousy when they see what's said about them. I'm a big girl who gets paid to take the shots, but everyday Philadelphians don't deserve to be punished and pummeled just for sharing their lives with our readers.”

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7. Biff said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 03:11PM

“Rob, I think you'll agree with me that it's pathetic to hijack a woman's brutal murder as an excuse to indulge in racism. Her family is suffering and wants to be left alone; the last thing they need is to have their pain co-opted by some political vendetta. This would be true even if the issue weren't something as braindead as philly.com's comment section.

It's also silly to imagine that there is any question of whether or not brutal rapes and murders are outrageous. Any literate person of average intellect can tell you that it's possible to object to uncivilized, racist discussion without endorsing a plainly odious crime.

Regardless, here's a tip: if you're really bent out of shape over the fact that your views on race relations aren't gaining the traction you'd hoped for when you wrote something like "THE DOGGONE MONKEYS NEED TO BE SENT ON A TRIP TO THE CAGE STORE," you might consider that elevating your diction can go a long way toward selling your weird, racist agenda.”

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