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Critical Comments on Comment Culture [Add Your Insulting Hostile Comment Below]

Read the comments below most online newspaper articles about Auburn and/or Alabama football, and eventually you realize that you are not just killing time — you are beating it to death with an ugly stick.

The comments follow a predictable pattern: back and forth, sometimes with increasing anger.  Civility flies out the window (along with spelling, grammar and word choice).  But no harm.  It’s all fun and games.  Or is it?  As the heat in the Auburn-Alabama rivalry gets turned up, you wonder whether the Toomer’s oaks poisoning is just the next benchmark in the temperature scale.

Two schools of thought are at play here.  One claims that such comments help sports fans let off steam — that they decrease the possibility of fans getting out of hand.  The other claims that the comments, like sports talk radio, stoke the fire and make things worse.  So who is right?

Actually, I’m not sure.

You won’t find much research on the topic.  Perhaps the best study was conducted by Jack Rosenberry of St. John Fisher College, who studied comments on news sites.  He didn’t do much to tie individual users and their comments to specific actions and attitudes, but his survey provided some great findings.  One stood out to me: Those who felt that online comments were overly negative, also commented less frequently.

In other words, on news sites, the loud whack jobs drive away those who are less negative in their comments.  The louts left behind no doubt feel that they prevailed with superior logic rather than repulsed with doofus behavior, but the effect is the same.  Given the dominance of hostile, predictable comments on sports sites, it seems to be a trend across the board.

One reason: Research does show that anonymity lessens inhibition in almost all communication situations.  Duh.  In some settings, like psychological therapy, that’s a good thing.  For online sports forums, anonymity enables people who need psychological therapy.  A wimp in person might consider himself/herself Captain America (albeit with a 3rd-grade vocabulary) on a message board.

And what it means is that, like a drunk at a party, they drive away the non-jerks.  And sites like al.com are left with a comments scene dominated by a few determined passive/aggressive types, while the rest of us sigh “not again” and go elsewhere.

At the risk of sounding like I’m pandering to my publisher, the War Eagle Reader is not in the same boat.  As a “one-sided” interest page, and with its content, the comments seem to be mainly civil.  The only hazard is excessive geeking out toward all things Auburn, but that seems to attract readers.

So what’s the solution for the hostile sites?  For some, it’s making commenters register with a name and e-mail address and eliminating anonymous posts.  If posters want to be loud and obnoxious, you know who they are.

Virginia Tech faced such a situation for its school newspaper a couple of years ago.  Comments had gotten so out of hand that posters were accusing the university president of adultery with students.  The situation turned ugly: the board overseeing the school newspaper ordered the school newspaper to end anonymous comments, and the newspaper refused.  But it’s indicative of the concern about anonymous comments.

Registration might be a good solution for sports sites.  Keep in mind, anonymity is not a First Amendment-protected right, though you would almost think so, from attitudes.  It’s ironic that newspapers traditionally require names with letters to the editor, but do not require any kind of verification for Internet comments.

I will be honest and say that I do not post under my name when I weigh in at al.com and Auburn Eagle.  My ID is auburngrad78, and my profile on comment boards lists my Auburn e-mail address, so it’s not like I’m hiding.

The other side of it is that I’ve also decided to keep my posts civil, as frustrating as it gets.  I finally decided, after suffering through Alabama’s 2009 season, that life’s too short for pricklish posting.  So regardless of what goes around, I let someone else make it come around.

Some complain that identifying posters makes debate less lively, even in a good way.  Then again, it might not.  For an example, look at that recent Crimson White column, “Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Beautiful.”  The horrific example of alleged “writing” appeared on a WordPress platform, so commenters were required to register with a name and e-mail address.  If you noticed, it didn’t diminish the deserved blasts (especially from Alabama folks).

Maybe the key is choice.  Message boards with anonymity abound; maybe someone needs to offer an active sports message board that promotes civility and intelligent comments.  Newspapers won’t take the lead; they are so hits-obsessed that they would not want to drive anyone away from their web sites.

Do you blame them?  I’m wondering: Would you have read this far down an al.com article, knowing that the comments below it would be tame?

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

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