User comments: Halfway from coal, halfway to diamond

I first got online back in the late 1980s. I remember trying to play Populous over modem with a friend (we both had Amigas). Later I took my first tentative steps into the realm of BBSes and message boards, connecting through local ISPs and taking part in discussions via Fidonet. Conversations online back then were radically different than now, of course. You subscribed to topics that interested you and every few days you’d receive a new packet of messages. Using a message reader you’d sift through them, find ones you wanted to reply to and then upload your responses, which would also take several days to arrive to others. In a way, it was just a semi-automated version of writing letters. As such, posts tended to be longer and more thoughtful. You didn’t waste a reply with something terse or forgetful because it could be upwards of a week before you got anything back (it was truly a delight when new packets of messages would sometimes arrive the very next day!)

By the mid-90s computer magazines were going on about the two hot topics of the day: Windows 95 and the Internet. I was cruising along with a 14.4 modem and split my time between browsing my ISP’s file database (text-based UI only) and taking my first tentative steps on the World Wide Web using early versions of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. I was absolutely dazzled that you could do more than one thing at a time on this fancy web thing. I could view a site and download a file. Amazing! Slow, too, but compared to 300 baud modems that downloaded text slowly enough to read it on-the-fly, it seemed like the future had arrived.

BBSes began to die out as message boards started appearing and I stopped using Fidonet (I remember being subscribed to the Music category and reading insightful posts from someone named Patrick Goodman back around 1990 or 1991. He was a huge fan of Queen and I vividly recall his devastation at the death of Freddie Mercury). Like everyone else, I jumped over to message boards which allowed for very nearly instant communication (that was also available via numerous instant messenger clients like AIM, ICQ and others, all of which were built more around one on one conversations).

As the Internet became a larger presence in our lives, it has continued to evolve. Nowadays it is more the exception than the rule that a company has a website. Magazines and newspapers (especially) have sometimes struggled to stay relevant when information can be disseminated quickly and “free”. Myspace and Facebook has ushered in an era of so-called social networking and as news organizations beef up their online components, we have seen many include the ability for the general public — really, anyone with a computer/device that connects to the Internet — to post comments on news stories, giving non-scientific and not necessarily representative but immediate feedback on stories of the day.

I have posted several times here lamenting the state of the commentary made by Joe Public on various news sites. Admittedly, these posters are a self-selecting group, so one should always take their comments with the appropriate grains of salt. But when I reflect on how the public has acted overall, I admit I start to wonder. How intelligent, rational and logical is the average person? Why do I never see evidence of this in the things they say online? 😛

All right, that’s unfair, there is obviously intelligent, rational and logical commentary out there but it amazes and depresses me how often it is drowned out by voices that demand they be heard, however irrelevant and stupid those voices might be. This long post is, I suppose, simply a further lamentation.

I read The Tyee, a website that describes itself in the masthead as “B.C.’s Home for Culture, News and Solutions”. It would be fair to describe its editorial slant as more left or center-left, which often puts it at odds with both the provincial and federal governments, not to mention the Canwest-dominated local media (in particular, the two Vancouver dailies). Yesterday they ran a piece by Geoff Meggs, a Vision Vancouver city councilor, calling for the dismantling of the Georgia viaduct, a legacy of the freeway that never was. A sidebar to another blog post goes into greater detail on how to remove and rebuild the area where the viaduct exists. It seems like a reasonable plan to me and one worthy of consideration and debate.

The comments on the story cover a range of quality but I’m going to highlight a few of the worst.

snert writes:

A silly idea.

Thought up by someone with not enough to do. Kinda like, Oh! Let’s change the corporate logo.

Well, why is it a silly idea? What is the purpose of posting such a comment? There is no insight here, nothing to be gleaned except “I don’t like it”. Well, hooray for you, snert, you’ve made your unsubstantiated opinion known. To what end?

Dr Alexander uses the common ploy of grinding his axe regardless of actual topic:

Instead of restricting access…..

to downtown Vancouver by tearing down viaducts (no thanks, I paid for them, keep them there)….

Perhaps we should restrict Gordo’s access to BC.

We would all be better off.

“I paid for them” is a rationale for keeping them? How about no, it isn’t? And then an unrelated swipe at Gordon Campbell just because. Brilliant.

To be fair, there are longer comments that address the pros and cons of the idea and I offer my thanks to those that contributed them. But it seems so often that people just post lazy, negative crap for its own sake. Am I some crazy intellectual elitist for wanting better? Hell, I wince at half of the posts I make on this site, so I’m hardly one to cast myself as a model to aspire to, but at least I try when I put it out there on a shared forum. I wish more people did.

UPDATE: Nic brought up a term that had eluded me until now that encapsulates this “cranky old guy” view of the Internet: Eternal September. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

The expression encapsulates the belief that an endless influx of new users (newbies) since that date has continuously degraded standards of discourse and behavior on Usenet and the wider Internet.

It is both comforting and disconcerting to see this idea codified in a formal way, such as it is.

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