Robin McAlpine: Here's why CommonSpace is right to delete its comment section

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine is worried about the nature of online discussion and information-sharing - is it as empowering as we think?

I'VE been writing about why the 'right to be heard' needs to be balanced by a 'right to hear' for quite a while now. When I first did I was thinking mainly of the way the media controlled so much of the flow of information to the public, and how much didn't get through.

This week CommonSpace turned off its comments facility. As it did, I reflected on the problems of being able to hear, as they affect our 'social media' generation.

Now, the problem is not that there aren't flows of information to the public, it's that I can't be alone in finding it increasingly difficult to 'hear' over the cacophony of opinion and argument that seems to surround everything.

READ MORE: Why we've hit the delete button on the CommonSpace comments section

I'm now pretty disillusioned about 'open access commenting'; it's not just the game-playing – it's the rush to be the first to comment on an article to try and set the tone for the comments that follow (the number of unionists first on our comments section, clearly picking a fight, doesn't look accidental to me...).

It's the overall quality. I would sometimes look at the comments under a CommonSpace news article and feel a bit despondent about how much it is adding to the debate. But to reassure myself, I only had to look, well, basically anywhere else.

The Herald is a serious newspaper but it is hard to call the average comment thread serious. The problem is even worse at the Scotsman where bluntly the average comment thread should be a positive embarrassment to the publication.

It's not the journalists' fault, but I find that an endless parade of pseudonyms trying to coin a clever new insult for each other actually colours my view of the whole publication. Do we want to be in the places where the extremes of conflict come to do battle? Over breakfast?

The only news outlet I read regularly where the comments section works is the Guardian. This is partly because I think the Guardian has lost the plot, editorially-speaking. The comments are often more balanced than the coverage.

The CommonSpace team struggle to find enough time even to delete the spam adverts for sunglasses that appear in comments sections, never mind dealing with defamatory or otherwise inappropriate posts.

But mainly it's because they invest a lot in moderation. They only open some articles for comment at a time and they are thorough in weeding out unhelpful comments. It creates a culture which encourages better commenting.

The CommonSpace team struggle to find enough time even to delete the spam adverts for sunglasses that appear in comments sections, never mind dealing with defamatory or otherwise inappropriate posts.

(I also have a personal bugbear about the effort we at Common Weal put into fundraising to sustain this news source only to have opponents campaigning to defund us on our own site. Seems rude to me – away and get your own audience...)

But this isn't just about comments sections, it's about the entire era in which we're living. If you want to make it hard for someone to find a particular marble in a particular bucket, you can take the marble out, or you can fill the bucket to the brim with marbles.

The mainstream media has always done the former; Facebook and Twitter (partly intentionally, partly accidentally) have just filled every bucket with a cacophony of clattering, jangling marbles.

But this isn't just about comments sections, it's about the entire era in which we're living.

I'm always being told how valuable Twitter is. I don't tweet but have an account so that I can on rare occasions see what is going on 'on Twitter'. I generally regret it. Professionally I certainly seem to spend many more hours dealing with the negative side of Twitter than experiencing the positive.

People still tell me how important Twitter is. I've been persuaded by their arguments a few times, but those were mainly people I met who had fought campaigns against repressive regimes, using Twitter to avoid the secret police.

What many find hard to accept is that the business model for social media is built on addiction. The way the interface gives and withholds hits of dopamine in the brain is inherent to its design.

If you don't know that your chosen social media platform is very, very carefully engineered in the way fruit machines are engineered – just enough to keep you playing, not enough you ever 'win', that you ever 'move on' – then you are even more vulnerable to those effects than if you do.

We're being slow to accept that these are advertising platforms monetising our data for corporations but which are disguised as fun, empowering tools. They're not meant to change the world for the better – at least, not any more.

We live in an era with an absolutely overwhelming focus on the 'me'-ness of it all. We think freedom of speech is paramount because we utterly believe in our right to, well, talk. And talk.

And the injection of that corrosive combination of narcissism and manufactured social stigma at their heart is damaging for all they touch. Remember, you can't manufacture your life based on what you think a stranger might possibly think about you.

The backlash has started. The impact on our psychology, the normalisation of aggressive, depersonalised behaviour, the creation of segregation of debate and discussion, the 'unfriending' of entire parts of society we don't agree with.

And the utter, utter information anarchy. It's not that we've not lived with 'fake news' forever, it's just it has been democratised and has proliferated. It used to take the security services to manufacture widespread misinformation – now a couple of kids in Macedonia can fool millions.

I worry about what all of this is doing to knowledge and debate. We have a system which now has a steel-like grip over the creation and distribution of social knowledge, and it is designed for data monopoly and saturation advertising.

In fact, it's a little bit like your local library was filled with flashing lights and books with exclusively lewd front covers, all designed to distract you while the librarians picked your pockets.

Now, there is so much more information, but so much of the time I find it more difficult to hear, and find less space to consider and think, before the next shouting match kicks off.

The idea that 'more knowledge' is the same as 'better knowledge' is a bit axiomatic for Silicon Valley types. I don't think that's ever been right. What is really important with knowledge is three things – 'truthfulness', diversity and useability.

I'll skip the meaning of truthfulness here (I've got a shelf of books on the subject which don't agree with each other so let's just take it as meaning 'not measurably false' for now). Diversity means not only that different ideas are available but ideas are tested and challenged by those who disagree with them.

Useability is key, though. If you are given so much information, or information which is so dense and complicated that you can't understand it, that information is unusable. Often, you might as well not have it.

Now I'm not a luddite. I remember being a young journalist pre-internet, sitting in the Mitchell Library for an afternoon scouring microfiches. The web is a brilliant thing, a truly amazing tool.

But I don't use social media, the din of capricious opinion. I have no idea what or who to trust – ironically other than the names of people and organisations I knew of before or outside social media. And even people I trust get into pointless, reductive fights which – at best – waste time.

Do I have a solution to this? I think we need more curation, more filtering. We need diversity, but we need what you might call 'consolidated diversity' – more ideas, fewer voices shouting them at you.

There's a debate going on among cultural theorists on the left about whether the 'individualism and free expression' revolution of the 1960s has proved a good thing for progressive politics. I fear I'm tending towards scepticism. What was supposed to 'free the human soul' seems to me largely to have led to ever greater consumption and social fragmentation.

We live in an era with an absolutely overwhelming focus on the 'me'-ness of it all. We think freedom of speech is paramount because we utterly believe in our right to, well, talk. And talk.

We take much, much less care about the ability to hear. In fact, saturation and confusion marketing is often designed specifically to prevent us from hearing clearly, to give in to the noise and stop fighting it...

I wrote very few opinion pieces in my name before 2013. But I read and thought voraciously. It could be hard then – again, I chuckle at the days I had political magazines posted to me from the US as the only way to get access to whole strands of political and cultural thinking. You had to work at it.

Now, there is so much more information, but so much of the time I find it more difficult to hear, and find less space to consider and think, before the next shouting match kicks off.

Do I have a solution to this? I think we need more curation, more filtering. We need diversity, but we need what you might call 'consolidated diversity' – more ideas, fewer voices shouting them at you. I'm just not completely sure what it looks like.

But it doesn't look like the comments sections most us have. It's a new era, we're all still finding our way. I fear we've got quite a way to go yet before we do.

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

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