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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Should you read the comments?

Uploaded: May 10, 2020
Comments are a big part of this online paper. The “Town Square” forum is featured prominently and the staff spends a good amount of time moderating the comments. For example, more than a quarter of the 52 comments on this recent article on face masks were moderated. (That number doesn’t include comments that were removed entirely.) The paper is investing a significant amount of time and space in these conversations. And yet many people I know don’t read them because they can get pretty unpleasant.


Publisher Bill Johnson acknowledges that despite the moderation many readers are put off by comments, estimating that about 60% of online viewers love the comments while about 40% avoid them. What is going on, why does it matter, should you read them, and can you be smarter about how you read (or write) them to avoid the worst bits?

The comments on these pages are often terrific, offering alternative perspectives, new information, or a humorous take on a difficult topic. You may hear from teachers about grading policies, from employees whose pay is being cut, from residents of neighborhoods undergoing a planning process, or from people who have lived in other parts of the country or world bringing relevant perspectives. Some readers have deep expertise in city or other matters, and Johnson says that some comments lead to revisions, corrections or additions to stories.

But reader comments don’t just help by polishing the facts or advocating a point of view. When neighbors discuss a difficult issue that we are collectively facing, it can strengthen our resolve to address it, help us ask better questions (as well as get some answers), and provide a measure of social comfort and reassurance that we are all in this together and that we will help each other. But that only works if the conversation is respectful. When online discussions deteriorate it becomes counterproductive. Here is one commenter’s remark about that: “What most bothers me about discussions like the threads above is the lack of respect for dissenting opinion.... Rather than being curious about why other people may not agree … their response is simply to call people they disagree with idiots, fools or make some other personal insult…. My facebook is so full of this stuff I can't even look at it anymore. People attacking each other instead of trying to understand each other. So much for civil discourse in our society.”

Johnson says the most common problem they encounter on Town Square are comments that denigrate other commenters. “It’s okay if you are talking about an issue, but not if you are talking about another poster,” he told me. Portions of comments that are not respectful of fellow commenters are removed. In practice, most posters understand where the line is and adhere to the rules. Occasionally a poster whose comment was edited or deleted will complain, Johnson said, and he might respond with an explanation and ask “What makes you think that this is an appropriate thing to say on a community platform?” Most of the time they appreciate the response, understand the issue, acknowledge that they probably got a little carried away, and adjust their approach. This exchange benefits both parties, Johnson says, because it builds trust and mutual understanding.

Another problem that moderators encounter has to do with accuracy. When the Palo Alto Online staff sees factually inaccurate information cited in the comments they will remove those portions. “We have a responsibility as a news organization to prevent dissemination of false stuff when we spot it.” Johnson cited a recent example in which a commenter referred to a widely discredited video of two physicians analyzing the coronavirus.

A third problem relates to commenters repetitively pushing an agenda, whether it is leaf blowers, the legitimacy of SFR zoning, home schooling, or nuclear energy. Blogger Diana Diamond has experienced this: “Oftentimes I feel the responders haven't even read my column, nor are they responding to the topic, but are off on their own trip.” Sometimes these two last problems -- inaccuracy and agendas -- go together, leading to repetitive peddling of dubious information. I have seen that to some degree with a badly outdated climate film on this blog.

Interestingly, the questionable comments tend to gravitate around certain topics. “Feature stories get fewer problematic comments. Crime stories bring out the worst in people,” reflects Johnson. “And now that we’ve removed the pay meter, we are getting some newer commenters who don’t seem to know the rules. It’s been more work lately to moderate because of the controversies and angst around the coronavirus crisis.”

But at the same time there seems to be a growing recognition of the value of productive conversation. I love the point this commenter makes at the start of his/her response to a recent guest opinion: “Thank you for starting this conversation and thinking aloud to the rest of us. It can take an awful lot of courage to do that. Thank you for making it clear that it is a conversation and not a pre-ordained opinion, and inviting our community to join in.” Respectful dissenting opinions help all of us to better understand an issue and peoples’ responses to it. As blogger Diana Diamond puts it: “Frequently people object to a posting simply because they disagree with a point of view. That doesn't warrant, in my mind, removing the comment. Different viewpoints are important.”

I have a few tips for reading and writing comments to make our online discussions more productive. I’d love to hear from you as well with your thoughts on making the most of the reader forum.

Tips for Reading Comments

1. You may be better off waiting a bit before reading comments, so you don’t see the disrespectful or inappropriate posts that the moderator edits or removes. Moderators often work in response to people reporting objectionable comments and that can take a little while.

2. Don’t put too much stock in the commenters’ names or neighborhoods, which are not verified and which some posters change frequently. A “resident of Stanford” may not in fact be from Stanford. Similarly, the +1 indicators are often gamed. Instead, focus on the content.

3. If you run across a nasty or provocative comment, try not to react. Someone’s just having one of those days or is intentionally provoking other readers. By not reacting, you can do your part to make the discussions productive. It can also help to “Report objectionable content”.

Tips for Writing Comments

1. Be honest, share (reliable) information when you have it, ask questions.

2. Don’t write to let off steam. If you are posting to get a reaction, make it a positive one. Most people don’t like to listen to people who are angry or snarky.

3. It’s fine to be anonymous. If it helps you to write more honestly, then it is even a plus. But it is not a license to be nasty. A colleague of mine used to write all his emails assuming that one day they might become public. His communications were respectful and thoughtful, and people loved working with him.

I really value the comments on this blog, and I see terrific comments on other stories as well. This is a thoughtful, knowledgeable community, and it shows. I hope this makes us more aware of the value and impact of our online discussions so we can continue to improve them and so more people will feel comfortable reading them.

Notes and References
1. Comments on blogs work a little bit differently than comments on regular stories, in that the blogger is able to establish guidelines and act as the primary moderator.

Current Climate Data (March/April 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

Comment Guidelines
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based and refer to reputable sources.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.
We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?

Comments

 +   6 people like this
Posted by Marian, a resident of Professorville,
on May 10, 2020 at 6:15 am

Well stated. Thank you.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on May 10, 2020 at 7:41 am

Not just here but basically anywhere on the internet, I usually skim right through the article and only read the comments. It is way more interesting to hear multiple viewpoints than one writer's opinionated navel-gazing screed.
Palo Alto Online allows people to post anonymously, which is great. Internet anonymity is vital and we seem to be losing it everywhere, so I like that Embarcadero Media has this old-school commenting system where you don't have to have an account to post. But I wish they would get rid of the "Like" system. I was never a fan of fake internet points and upvotes/downvotes.
Obviously some people who can't handle hearing offensive language, and who want moderation and censorship everywhere, will not agree with me.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 10, 2020 at 8:48 am

Thank you for starting this thoughtful discussion. What you have put needs to be said and thank you for doing it.

I for one have learned a lot from reading comments here. Town Square is read and commented on by some of the most intelligent, well informed, well educated people around. We can all learn from each other if we take the time to read the comments.

We can also disagree with the comments. I know I do quite a bit. I try to think through why I disagree and by putting my thoughts into words and hopefully coherent sentences, I find that I am in fact understand where I stand on an issue much better than the random thoughts I would have otherwise. I know people often disagree with me and that's fine, I find the disagreement makes me question myself and perhaps tweak my ideas.

What I don't like, is the assumption that because I think a certain way it means I vote a certain way or I get my news from a certain place. In most cases when people say that, they are wrong. They don't know me and it is quite apparent that they assume I can't think for myself. They are wrong about me. I prefer my ideas to be my own and what I say means that those ideas should stand by themselves, not because of voting habits or media habits. Personally, I don't comment on the specifics of big political debate, although I might comment against issues such as the amount of money spent on big elections or similar, without defending any political point of view.

When someone says something I disagree with and explain as best I can why I disagree with them, it doesn't mean that I don't like them as a person, that I think they should keep quiet or that they deserve any nasty name in the book. I disagree with their point of view on that particular subject. That's it. I can disagree with them on one point, but who knows, the next time I may agree completely with them on another topic. We are all of different opinions, it is what makes life interesting. It would be a dull world if we all agreed on everything one hundred percent of the time.

Yes, keep it respectful. Have good reasons for disagreeing with an opinion. Even if we have a different opinion, we should not be afraid to state it (and by that we can do it anonymously for plenty of good reasons). But we need free speech and open dialog. We need to have those who choose to read from various sources. We need to have more than one side of an argument eloquently explained. We need to look at both sides now. We need to be open to the idea that we might be wrong, but we also need to be open to the idea that we might be right too even if very few of us happen to agree.

Respect works two way. And as for that famous video between two doctors, I have never seen it because it was taken away before I had the chance. But I am so interested to hear what they had to say and what they said which was so dangerous for me to hear. In fact, I am very curious and really have more of a desire to see it because it was banned than I would have done if it had been left in place. I just wonder what it was that we are not allowed to hear. Hmm. No smoke without fire obviously.

Makes you think.

Respect.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Anyhoo , a resident of Evergreen Park,
on May 10, 2020 at 9:15 am

Sherry: agree with one of the 'residents' - Respect!

;)

Comments will always attract those that seek the more conspiratorial of theories, as outlined perfectly by another poster above: "I usually skim right through the article and only read the comments. It is way more interesting to hear multiple viewpoints..."

Why read a well documented and sourced viewpoint when they can go straight to opinions of those that offer neither?

[Portion removed]

Anyhoo - thanks. I bet your discussions with Bill and Diana were a hoot!


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on May 10, 2020 at 9:47 am

@Anyhoo
Douglas Moran is my favorite blogger on here. His writing is very thought-provoking and well-researched. I skim through articles on the internet because 90 percent of what I read is predictable, shallow, inane partisanship. All I really want is a neutral, objective viewpoint that isn't tainted by political leanings, which is what Mr. Moran does so well.
I draw from a variety of sources and come to my own conclusions, based on my own intuition rather than the "academic consensus". The big news websites always feauture the same writers (both on the right and the left) and I already know their opinon and stance on things, there is no point in reading their articles because all they do is rehash the same very tired topics. The state of journalism today is appalling and reading all these "news" articles is really not worth my time.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 10, 2020 at 9:51 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. I have observations from watching the Embarcadero online comments sections since they started (and public internet discussions more generally, since soon after the newsgroups began in 1980). FYI, about 15 years ago while sending food- and restaurant-news-related info to my local Embarcadero paper, the editor approached me, described a plan to begin regular blogs, and asked if I might undertake one on food topics. I declined (eventually in 2013, Elena Kadavny initiated something similar, and does a far better job than I could have.)

I know neighbors who won't read Town Square, calling it "scary" with its sniping and clique of regular troll commenters. A longstanding consensus observation from many online discussion fora is that if most comments are civil and responsible, that sets a norm, and misbehavior is seen as exceptional; while if off-putting posts surpass a certain percentage, that drives away the more constructive commenters and then many people react like those neighbors I just mentioned.

A factor I've raised over the years (in comments and in private correspondence to editors) is that a registration requirement for comments is well-established as an effective disincentive to trolls and other problems that you describe above. Some Embarcadero bloggers (such as Chandrama Anderson) routinely elect that requirement, finding it helpful. Registration does NOT conflict with "anonymity" because users are free to choose a screen name, which the site ownership keeps confidential as a demonstration of its ethics. What registration does do is attach a sense of accountability to commenting. It won't stop abrasive personalities from being themselves (which happens even in strictly real-name-only fora); what it does is cut out the extremes of willful trolling and cheap shots. And reduce the required moderation labor. Some newspaper websites use a third-party service for this (such as Disqus), where commenters register once, then can post on any affiliated website. Disqus though is funded by its own ads and may conflict with Embarcadero's business model.

I've raised the prospect of a general registration requirement several times with various editors. From the nature of their responses I infer that the ownership opposes the idea, by whatever reasoning. But consequent to that choice come some of the problems you decribe above.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Pullet surprise, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 10, 2020 at 11:25 am

Max- I think the editor thinks that if you require registration to comment, you will cut down on traffic on the site. A perfect example is chandramas blog- she requires registration to comment, so most of her postings have no comments. [Portion removed.]
But in the same vein, the weekly itself edits and removes comments that are critical of people and causes that they are supporting, even though those comments do not violate the rules. The weekly has never been balanced- one sided and biased. But of course they are in the position to make sure that comments support their viewpoint.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Anyhoo , a resident of Evergreen Park,
on May 10, 2020 at 11:26 am

Max has got it right about registration. Long discussed and overdue.

> is a neutral, objective viewpoint that isn't tainted by political leanings, which is what Mr. Moran does so well.

Then why does he delete any posts that correct his mistakes or note his obvious partisanship? [Portion removed.]

I guess clicks (and honesty) don't matter when giving a small corner of the sandbox to a fringe view. Fair enough.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on May 10, 2020 at 3:57 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

I've been using comment systems since the mid-1970s, and even wrote one in the late '70s. Human nature being what it is, a lot of the problems haven't changed much in the past 40 years. :-)

Technology can help with some things. It's useful to be able to promote or demote postings based on content and author reputation, and to prioritize viewing depending on each reader's personal criteria. (Slashdot's moderation system is an interesting example of this approach.) I'm sure Palo Alto Online can't afford to implement a more sophisticated comment system at the moment, but it's worth keeping in mind that many of the issues with the present system could be fixed with technology improvements that are already in use elsewhere.

Anonymity allows some people to participate who otherwise could not (for fear of retribution, for example). But it's easily abused. In my experience, good forums have a critical mass of people who are willing to post under their real names (because that tends to drive the conversation toward civility and responsibility) and a complement of anonymous contributors (who can keep the conversation from devolving into groupthink). For Town Square, it might help to establish policies that nudge the balance a bit more in favor of real names.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Resident , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 10, 2020 at 5:41 pm

I strongly disagree with the idea of registration and being forced to use real names.

Facebook and Nextdoor are places where real names are presumably used, and it doesn't make users any more polite or respectful. In fact, both are full of people using their registered real names calling names and using foul language to those with whom they disagree, particularly on news channels articles and local problems with dog shit and leafblowers.

I would rather not have my reading habits monitored by this newspaper so choose not to use a registered screen name attached to my payment. I don't want cookies determining what interests me and what does not. Likewise I do not approve of someone like YouTube deciding what videos put up by two doctors is something I should not watch. If they want to be a public platform, then that is what they should be not. Not watchdogs preventing me from watching something with which they disagree or say is not scientific. I am an intelligent human being and can make that call for myself. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it makes me much more likely to want to see something they decide I can't see. What is it that these two people said that seems to be so dangerous I must not hear it?

Algorithms are all well and good if they give me an alternative brand of underwear when I am shopping on Amazon, but when it tries to push me to certain reading information as opposed to others, who I can find or who I cannot find without searching, then that does worry me.

But I do like the initial tone of the conversation here to being respectful with those with whom we disagree, which I think is what the thread is about. I think we should learn from other comments and be able to read them without too much monitoring and deletions. I tend to think Doug Moran should not be so heavy handed, but I thinking he is learning a little better how to do that effectively. We can all learn and improve our skills. That is what being the more mature adult is about and separates us from the 18 year old adult who thinks they know it all. Of course not all 18 year olds have that attitude, and likewise not all older people are wiser just because of their years.

Can we return back to discussion on reading the comments rather than spending too much time on registration and real names. I like the former idea, but the latter idea will make me skim over the comments.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Hygienic Fascism, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 11, 2020 at 6:42 am

Another great post, Sherry.

For almost every article I open on the Internet, I typically skim the post and then go straight to the comments. I especially like posts that use the Disqus comment system that allows the reader to order them according to “Newest," “Oldest," and “Best" (most up-voted.) For posts that receive 30 or comments, I usually opt for “Best."

Comments are the lifeblood of a post -- if a post doesn't get many, it's likely that the post didn't offer much.

I also prefer moderation that's very lightly applied.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Pullet surpise, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 11, 2020 at 9:52 am

[Portion removed]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Speak Freely, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 11, 2020 at 10:25 am

Some people feel the need to vent & naturally, opinions/commentaries will vary.

Inflammatory & personal/ethnicity insulting posts have no place and are usually deleted by the moderator(s).

Outside of these considerations, moderation should be kept to a minimum.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Speak Freely, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 11, 2020 at 10:30 am

[Portion removed because referenced comment was removed]


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Freak Speely, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 11, 2020 at 12:02 pm

- if a post doesn't get many, it's likely that the post didn't offer much

Also the views. [Portion removed]


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 11, 2020 at 12:58 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Lots of good thoughts...

There's a great question in a comment or two above about censorship and whether the cure is worse than the disease. I think that is coming up more and more as "fake news" becomes an issue. Suppose a video is made available that has false information in it, about covid, about climate, etc. Maybe it is intentionally false. Maybe it is cherry-picked or otherwise one-sided. Maybe it exhibits "false balance". Maybe it is just very outdated. At what point should it be removed from platforms like YouTube and Facebook, versus allowed to stick around and be rebutted? When should it have a "false information" banner with a link to the problems (and who writes that link)? When should it just be demoted? How much should readers be required to rely on the reputation of the author/publisher, and should that be surfaced that in some way (other than by ranking)? These are tough but important questions. IMO it is really problematic to live in a world where truth is subjective. Truth can be complex, which is almost the same thing as subjective given our limited attention and capacities to understand. But I for one do (mostly) believe in objective reality, so those questions intrigue me.

My 2c re "real names" -- people will fake those, so in practice it wouldn't add much. Re a registration requirement, my guess is it would impact comment volume a lot and comment quality only a little (we would lose both good and bad). I know the paper has considered this, so I wouldn't be surprised to see an experiment, though I would bet that it would fail.

You may notice I moderated some of the comments above. I think we are lucky to have the great variety of bloggers that we do on this site. I've spoken with several bloggers about commenting, and they have and are adapting based on what they see on their blog and how much time they have to moderate. Some blogs have more sensitive material than others. As one example, the spam on the "Couple's Net" blog is much worse than what I get on this blog. I think we all learn as we go, and the commenters have a big impact on how we respond.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Pullet surprise, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 11, 2020 at 1:26 pm

I am sorry, sherry. But what spam on the Couples Net blog? For years chandrama has limited the comments to only registered users, she gets little to no comments on her postings. If she is getting spam, it can be traced back to the registered poster,
Did chandrama tell you she was getting spam??? Hmmm... I wonder......
BTW, nothing remotely against the rules in the comments you removed.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on May 11, 2020 at 1:33 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Sherry: "My 2c re "real names" -- people will fake those..."

Then they aren't real names, are they? :-)

Authentication is a technical problem, and solutions exist if you want to use them.

As a social matter, if real names don't add much, why do the bloggers and reporters here use their real names in their bylines? In which ways are commenters fundamentally different?

Just to emphasize this again, I'm not suggesting *everyone* should be forced to use *only* their real names. There is plenty of history to show why this isn't a good idea. But there is also plenty of history that shows that if you want civility, if you want personal responsibility, then you need a critical mass of people who are willing to speak in their real-life identities.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Hygienic Fascism, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 11, 2020 at 1:36 pm

Timely post.

Question about your moderation criteria. A few weeks back, one of your readers in a comment about climate change models and virus models, referred to Covid-19 as the "Chinese Coronavirus." This is the same term that many major US media outlets (NYT, ABC, NBC, CBS, WaPo) had used from mid-January until about mid-March. You deleted the comment saying it contained racist language. What was your rationale?

Thanks for your replay. Keep up the good work!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 11, 2020 at 3:04 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Whenever the registered-users concept comes up, some people confuse it with a "real-name" requirement, though they're distinct. I see some of that in comments above. Anonymity remains available even with registrations. Only a sense of accountability is added. One benefit (touching on another comment here): "Like" counts become (at last) meaningful, no longer easily gamed (the software only allows one vote per user). Though some thoughtful comments now come from people who think they wouldn't register, in practice that doesn't inhibit lively comment discussions on the various journalistic sites I've read (local or national) that require registration to comment -- it's not an untested question.

As Sherry wrote, some commenters habitually denigrate, misinform, or repeat fixed messages. Those users, naturally, dislike any accountability and always oppose registration requirements. They're also the commenters that the more serious bloggers (like Chandrama Anderson and Doug Moran) won't tolerate, so they denigrate those bloggers too.

Pullet surprise: "A perfect example is chandramas blog- she requires registration to comment, so most of her postings have no comments."

Actually a very poor example to support the claim made, especially to me: I've followed that blog since it started, seen the effect of Chandrama adopting a registration requirement. That blog deals with serious psychological issues. It *never* got many comments, but some petty disrespectful stuff (familiar in Town Square) spilled into it, compelling Chandrama's policy. The serious comments still appear in similar volume as always.

Pullet surprise: "But what spam on the Couples Net blog? For years chandrama has limited the comments to only registered users. . ."

I gather P. s. is unfamiliar with the standard "spam" issue (a separate phenomenon on these web pages). Commercial spammers (often early AM) place product ads or links as comments. They've learned to register as needed, since they won't be regulars anyway. Newspaper personnel spend time regularly cleaning out those comments. No relation to "Comments" by actual readers.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Pullet surprise, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 11, 2020 at 3:31 pm

Max- I am familiar with the spam issues on this site. It seems it is so much easier to spam all the other bloggers, besides chandrama, since all you have to do,is go to the site and post whatever you want. With chandrama you Have to register , then acknowledge the registration etc.

My other comment is obviously verifiable- check her blog posting, she has little to no comments .her requiring registration, leads to little to no comments compared to Doug, sherry, Elena , Diana and the others.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 11, 2020 at 4:13 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Pullet: "nothing remotely against the rules". True. I removed parts of comments from this post that were negative about one or more other bloggers. I'm just not comfortable hosting that kind of commentary. If it persists, I'll add something to that effect as an official rule in my guidelines. Sorry for moving the goalposts...

@Hygienic: The first comment I removed was clearly racist. The second was a snarky rejoinder to the removal of the first. The third was a less snarky argument about the removals, and (a) I lost patience and (b) arguing about moderation is technically off-topic. None of the comments I removed had the term "Chinese coronavirus". The first had "Wuhan virus", but that was only secondary to why I removed it. If you'd like to adjudicate that or any other moderation, please reach out in email.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 11, 2020 at 4:23 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

I'm sorry this requires a running clarification, but commenter "Pullet surprise" (anonymous and unregistered, please note) missed my meaning above.

The claim was that Chandrama's blog "requires registration to comment, SO most of her postings have no comments."

Emphasis added on "so." What I explained is, I've read her blog since before she switched over to requiring registration. That is the variable at issue here. No consistent change in serious comments volume ensued, but frivolous petty comments fell.

Some blogs always get far more comments than others, from other factors (like the subject's popularity). You can't carelessly conflate those factors with the "registration" option and draw meaningful conclusions. (I think "Pullet surprise" is unwittingly supporting my points.)

One more quirk that Sherry could have touched on is over-commenting: people who write a quarter or third of all comments in a long thread. . .


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Pullet surprise, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 11, 2020 at 5:01 pm

“ Emphasis added on "so." What I explained is, I've read her blog since before she switched over to requiring registration. That is the variable at issue here. No consistent change in serious comments volume ensued, but frivolous petty comments fell."

I looked at the last 30-40 blog posts that chandrama made, I counted roughly 12 total comments. With most having 0 comments. If there were frivolous petty comments, they came from registered users. Easy to block. The numbers do not lie.

Sherry- I am sorry that I have to continue to explain my comments to max, but he seems to not understand the math.
The fact that I am not registered is immaterial to this discussion and I am not what is his point in emphasizing this.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by rtjohnson, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on May 11, 2020 at 5:54 pm

rtjohnson is a registered user.

Sherry,

Thanks for another thoughtful post. I really enjoy reading your blog and enjoy my subscription and daily review of the local community news stories. I also frequent the comments of many (dare I say, most) of the news stories I read. Over time, I've learned to discern some patterns -- in some cases even figuring out who is behind anonymous posts and handles.

But I also find the increased trolling in the comment sections troubling. And I don't believe the current solution employed can scale with the scope of the growing problem, particularly for local community publications such as those published by Embarcadero Media.

I believe that the future of Embarcadero Media (and its bloggers) in maintaining healthy community discourse is threatened if the model is one of (1) open platform (i.e., no restrictions on the locale of the commenter), (2) staff/blogger/self-moderation, (3) non-registered comments, and (4) preservation of anonymity. I find insufficiently persuasive the argument that some people behave badly even when they use their names or must register, so why aim for accountability. (That is the equivalent of arguing that some people run stop signs, so let's get rid of them.) Although true (some will behave badly), the normative effect of registration is greater accountability (e.g., chronic offenders of normative discourse can have their rights removed). I also find the general "free speech" argument unpersuasive -- not all speech is protected speech: you can't yell "fire" in the crowded theater, without consequences.

As this Pew Research Center survey noted (Web Link):

"Anonymity, a key affordance of the early internet, is an element that many in this canvassing attributed to enabling bad behavior and facilitating “uncivil discourse" in shared online spaces."

"Most experts predicted that the builders of open social spaces on global communications networks will find it difficult to support positive change in “cleaning up" the real-time exchange of information and sharing of diverse ideologies over the next decade. . ."

I wouldn't necessarily push against anonymity, as there are often times when the use of a name will stifle important speech (e.g., the classic whistleblower comes to mind). But registration seems to carry strong advantages for limiting the role of AI bots that are beginning to take over comment threads on high-traffic sites and will, eventually (IMHO) cover most open platforms with comment traffic (as a way to pedal the influence they are built to have).

As a subscriber, I firmly believe that local, moderate-traffic sites that maintain openness in the belief that staff/blogger/self-moderation will work, will lose the "civility war" in epic fashion as they cannot devote the resources (staff-FTE time or AI) to handle the moderating necessary to maintain civility and will face one of two effects over time -- either a loss of civil discourse or a loss of subscribing readers, or perhaps, both. Ultimately, I believe this to be an existential threat to online publications and forums such as those published by EM.

I hope I'm wrong. But if I'm right, the future of a publication such as this (and of which I am extremely fond), hangs in the balance. Registration of all comments would seem worthy of thoughtful consideration (if it hasn't already been so considered).

-- todd


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Hygienic Fascism, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 11, 2020 at 8:03 pm

Sherry: you are doing a great service to your blog readership by having this “comment" post and ensuing thread.

<< None of the comments I removed had the term "Chinese coronavirus". The first had "Wuhan virus">>

Just to be clear and this will be the end of it for me: in your opinion, the term “Chinese Coronavirus" is not racist. Correct?

In your opinion, is the term “Wuhan Coronavirus" racist? Both terms were used often by major US media outlets from mid-January to mid-March.

In my opinion, the term “racist is not to be used lightly.

Keep up the good work.


 +   16 people like this
Posted by Wake up!, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 11, 2020 at 8:51 pm

Unfortunately I would never feel comfortable using my real name. Too much retribution and potential negative impact on my kids, my family. And while Bill Johnson purports to “moderate lightly" the comments are heavily censored and moderated to a very strong political slant. It's very obvious and anyone being honest can see it.

I have multiple circumstances where I have asked him and his Editor for specific reasons and was not answered. It is very unfortunate but even more it is worrisome that a more diverse and alternative view is not ‘allowed'. And yes, I use that word ‘allowed' because they make the choice to ban. It's shameful actually.

But I continue to come and read and make what comments I can because I hold a small sliver that people will read, hear and maybe open to a different perspective than the one 99.9% of his bubble presents.

I'll hold you as an example Sherri. I presented to you a very scientific, data based videoOn a recent blog relating to energy and suggested that you watch it. My sister, who is a highly respected geologist had sent it to be to watch. You commented that you didn't feel the need to because it was connected to an organization that you very much disagree with. Now, the SCIENTIST that presented the info is extremely well respected and factual but because you didn't agree with his viewpoint you chose not to even give it a view. Bubble. And again, I will try to comment where I can and hope that some may just open their eyes a bit to the different ideas.

It's fascinating really, I have been following these articles form,any years. And what strikes me is that when something is said often enough people start believing it to be true and no longer question. And that is what I hope to prevent by doggedly presenting different view points. That maybe hearing an alternative viewpoint often enough they see there's another side that just maybe, just might be worth listening to.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 11, 2020 at 9:52 pm

Wake Up You are not alone. There are more of us out here and we do need to get our thoughts heard and we need to keep on thinking these thoughts.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 12, 2020 at 10:08 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@rtjohnson -- I do expect that the paper will run an experiment limiting comments to registered users, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. As you say, there are good reasons for trying it, and the publisher is interested. It is also pretty straight-forward to evaluate the success of that experiment, as long as it is run for long enough. But the paper will need to work out things like whether there will be limits on registering, whether there will be limits on changing the name associated with a registered account, etc. If you have good real-world examples of this that you would like to share, it would be worth sharing with the publisher. "This has worked well because ..." or "I really like this aspect of this commenting system..." I believe that constructive conversations around some kind of shared objective reality are extremely important, and we cannot take them for granted these days. We need to actively foster and encourage them, starting with design of the systems themselves. The publisher of this paper does care about that.

@Wake: I agree that we need to find ways to get out of our bubbles, even though it's really hard. Do you remember which movie you are talking about? I think one thing we need to be cautious of when doing that, though, is misinformation. That is one of the reasons i am so disappointed with Planet of the Humans. It makes some good points, but it is also rife with misinformation, which really takes away from what could be a fine movie. It seems irresponsible and even negligent of them -- they could/should have done better. You can also read a thought-provoking profile of a contrarian thinker here.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Green Gables, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on May 12, 2020 at 11:31 am

Green Gables is a registered user.

I do not know why some people need to write a book to express their comment. Please KISS


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Unclear rules with inconsistent reinforcement, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on May 12, 2020 at 12:36 pm

“What makes you think that this is an appropriate thing to say on a community platform?" They've seen mean-spirited and untrue comments posted--over and over again. Comments are only censored sometimes (often to the benefit of the publisher's politics) and it's unclear why some comments are censored and others allowed to remain.

The hateful comments are sometimes personally harmful, as people I know and love have had lies spread about them in this comments section. Some comments end up censored, while others don't, but the impact of spreading misinformation among the most rabid users is the same. I won't pay a subscription to a business that lets lies about people I care about fester.

I agree with the commenters calling for real names and registered users. In a real town hall, you see the person's name and face when they speak. You might still say something inflammatory, but it would not be to the same degree as what we see in this nasty comments section.

This comments section is a very unhealthy place that I try not to visit. Occasionally, I make the mistake of reading or engaging and inevitably leave the website feeling dirty. Not an ideal customer experience...


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Pullet surprise, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 12, 2020 at 1:23 pm

“ do expect that the paper will run an experiment limiting comments to registered users, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. As you say, there are good reasons for trying it, and the publisher is interested. It is also pretty straight-forward to evaluate the success of that experiment, as long as it is run for long enough. "

Should be an interesting experiment. I imagine the publisher hopes that requiring registration will lead to new members which would mean more money for the publisher.

“ Comments are only censored sometimes (often to the benefit of the publisher's politics) and it's unclear why some comments are censored and others allowed to remain. "

Exactly . Much of the editing goes toward comments that do not support the publishers position regarding the issue du jour. or is against the member of the Palo Alto elite that the publisher is supporting.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Long time reader, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 12, 2020 at 1:28 pm

How about some examples of this supposed bias in moderating instead of generalizations? I see viewpoints of all kinds on Town Square on both sides of virtually every issue. The only comments I see removed are ones that are so mean-spirited that they definitely deserve to be removed.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Wildlife Lover, a resident of Portola Valley,
on May 12, 2020 at 1:31 pm

Great subject on comments!

I appreciate the thoughtful perspectives on any subject. I skim the article and go right for the comments, skipping the looooong dissertations and anything beyond 10 lines in length.

I gain far more clarity on my own opinions reading a dozen short comments than 2 long multi-paragraph responses.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on May 13, 2020 at 2:24 am

@Longtime resident

Say anything about Democrat Party leaders from the governor of CA down to PA City Council members, and it will be summarily scrubbed. However, POTUS is fair game, even if it comes from the PAO Editorial Board itself:

Web Link

And of course, if the blowback is too much, they will shut down all discussion.

You will always find my comments as one of the lone dissenting voices. At least I'm not constantly posting under different names like some people...


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 13, 2020 at 7:56 am

I will repeat that I am very much against registration of any type of screen name linked to any time of payment (not that I am against payment just that they are linked) and any type of proof of identity or using "real names".

However, I do think that having a delay in posting would make sense. Perhaps an edit feature would help so that instead of seeing the original box we could see how the "printed post" would look before final edit and submit. I also think that there should be a delay from submit until it appears on the public thread. This would presumably help prevent some of the knee jerk postings which could well be regretted by the poster and it would also prevent those commenters who just like to see their point appear in print. I would also suggest that the "like" feature be replaced with two buttoms, agree and disagree. Many times I would like to hit a disagree button rather than have to go to the bother of making a comment just to say that I disagree with a certain previous comment. Being able to disagree rather than type a paragraph which could turn into a personal attack could make some of those attack comments go away.

When starting a new thread, there is a delay and sometimes the moderators do not approve the topic. If it can be done for new topical threads, then a similar system could help keeping comments more civil.

Just my suggestions, but I think they could help.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Long time reader, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 13, 2020 at 8:01 am

Resident,

I have seen many instances where disrespectful comments criticizing Trump supporters were removed, just as the opposite is the case. I have never seen a substantive comment get removed, regardless of the viewpoint it expressed, that didn't attack someone or contain a false statement.

If you believe this isn't true, then link to an example of this instead of casting aspersions on the integrity of the moderators. Editorials are opinions, just like the comments we all post here and on Town Square. If you're going to attempt to make a connection between them with the moderation of Town Square, provide the links that support your claim. That shouldn't be difficult if what you say is true.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Wake up!, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 13, 2020 at 9:22 am

@long time, I absolutely agree with Resident, the moderation is highly slanted. Clearly it is impossible to provide you a link to something that has been deleted!


 +   3 people like this
Posted by ASR, a resident of College Terrace,
on May 13, 2020 at 9:51 am

It is good to have a forum to express their views.
Some moderation is required.

People need to be sincere and respectful.


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 13, 2020 at 10:33 am

I comment anonymously for (at least) three reasons:

1) My former employer requested it, because of the assumption that many people made that personal opinions could be interpreted as somehow endorsed by the employer.

2) The frequent attacks and threats by RWAs (Right Wing Authoritarians) on people who publicly disagree with them.

Web Link

3) Family/friends/associates who want to keep a low profile.

On the other hand, I welcome moderation. There are thousands of places where people can post anything they want, devoid of facts. The moderation here is what keeps the signal-to-noise ratio tolerable, and what makes this site interesting and useful enough to read and post.

Anonymously, my arguments have to stand on their own, for better or worse.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 13, 2020 at 1:35 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Great comments... I think the idea of a delay is interesting (you get that today if you comment as a registered user) as well as additional ways to respond.

I think @unclear/inconsistent is right that moderation is not always obvious or consistent. Bill Johnson will be the first to admit that moderation isn't perfect, so if you have a question about a specific comment, feel free to pass it on. And do mark things objectionable, which makes a difference.

One thing to be aware of is that you may not see the patterns that the moderator sees. As one example, there is a person who comments on many of my posts, always under different names and cities, who typically uses this pattern: "Hey Sherry, terrific post! (Various provocative statements aligned with Trump's base.) Keep up the great work, Sherry!" Some may seem innocuous on their own, but the pattern gives some context about the intent of this person -- e.g., genuine inquiry vs intent to provoke -- that a moderator may take into account but may not be obvious to the casual reader. Here is one such comment, from the "Will the Coronavirus Save Lives?" post, which I removed as off-topic: "Will the Wuhan Coronavirus save lives? 625,000 abortions per year in the US. That’s 52,000 lives saved for every month of the shutdown. Love your blog, Sherry!" That seems like a pretty clear candidate for moderation, but you can imagine others that are more subtle. The pattern indicates that they are trolling, but any given comment may be less obvious.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Gathering, a resident of Midtown,
on May 13, 2020 at 11:08 pm

It occurs to me that even before the shutdown, people were not "gathering" in the usual places to talk to each other, but rather to spend time with their devices. Now that we are shut down, talking to each other is a luxury. I have noticed that there seem to be more comments, everywhere, since the shut down. We need to communicate, and more communication usually means better decision-making and fewer assumptions. While it is disturbing to read mean-spirited comments, if moderating them means shutting down the rest of the comments, then it doesn't make sense. People are free to be jerks or saints. Perhaps the commenting community could be given a tool to delete a comment if enough "down votes" are clicked.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Takeitorleaveit, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 14, 2020 at 10:59 am

Unless there is profanity the comment should be left alone. “Group think" has proven to be a failure in the business world and even “passionate" comments have value....you might just learn something. I feel the anonymous, simple, comments are the most important part of Pali Alto Online and most informative. And a reminder that just because it's a theory you disagree with, does not make it a “conspiracy theory" any more that your thought or theory.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Freely, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 14, 2020 at 11:14 am

[Post removed due to poster using multiple names]


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by ronewolf, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on May 15, 2020 at 5:24 pm

ronewolf is a registered user.

Civil discourse is essential to progress, IMO your rules, hazy or not, favor an orderly respectful conversation. Name calling, inflammatory labeling, & one way conversation, especially based on discredited sources, block civil discourse in all forums.

It's your publication, I read it regularly & support you for years as an essential local community building resource. Thx for what you do.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 15, 2020 at 8:36 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I had my chart done by David Pond in 1988 " Saturn return " and he said my riding sign, Scorpio is where I get my inclination to tell people what is what.
I claim to be the only person who commonly gets deleted or censored even though I post under my name.
PAW should pay us by the word for contributing content.
An intern " paid by the hour " should go back and delete all anonymous comments.
I tend to skim over the unsigned posts and read people who I know.

To SL, and excuse the digression, reading your bio or intro I tend to agree with you in that I've adapted an environmental screen to my work and methodology but your wording, “this amazing planet" kind of made me chuckle " reminds of the spoof video by Lil Dicky.
(I tend to go for the pop allusion...)
I think Hauser and AA are right but I'd use a blunter club.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 15, 2020 at 8:37 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Two hundred fifty million views:
Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on May 17, 2020 at 5:26 pm

I read articles that interest me, and I try to keep my comments short. The moderation on this is site is stringent, and I respect that. Thanks for not deleting me. I learn from reading comments, and I appreciate it. There are really smart people here, and I miss Palo Alto...


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