Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, as you know, there are a number of ways you can tell us what you think of our program. You can send us an email or a letter or you can post a comment on our website.

Well, this may not come as much of a surprise, but people who leave comments on the Internet can be really, really, really mean.

Blogs and news websites, including ours, have seen more than their fair share of nasty responses and name-calling.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports that some sites are reconsidering just how open they really want to be.

LAURA SYDELL: If you want to know what it's like to get attacked online, just ask Miki Hsu Leavey.

She wrote a thankful letter to the editor of the local paper when the health care bill passed. She has lupus. Her 24-year-old son can't get health care because of a preexisting heart condition and her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Ms. MIKI HSU LEAVEY: So my thank you note was really about the relief I had mentally.

SYDELL: When Leavey looked at the site the morning it was posted, she got comments like this one.

Ms. LEAVEY: Oh, my poor baby is sick. Only the great Obama can save him. Makes me sick just reading it.

SYDELL: Leavey was shocked by the vitriol.

Ms. LEAVEY: And I'm going, oh, my gosh, I can't believe what they're saying. Oh, my goodness, this is so personal. I mean, I guess, I wrote a personal story so maybe that's what I asked for.

SYDELL: The Napa Valley Register, which published Leavey's letter, wouldn't comment about her experience, but some sites like having personal attacks, says Scott Rosenberg, author of "Say Anything: How Blogging Began."

Mr. SCOTT ROSENBERG (Author, Say Anything: How Blogging Began): What they really wanted was to boost traffic on their websites because the more pages that are viewed, the more ads can be sold.

SYDELL: Rosenberg says it was just part of the early zeitgeist of the web to let commenters say whatever they wanted.

Mr. ROSENBERG: So many media companies simply opened the doors to their websites and said, anybody, come post whatever you want, and expected that they would have brilliant conversations and exchanges of ideas.

SYDELL: There might be a few of those, but too often it's the nasty comments that jump out.

Stanford communications Professor Clifford Nass says it's predictable when you have a lot of people vying for attention.

Professor CLIFFORD NASS (Department of Communication, Stanford University): So ironically and tragically, if you want people to respond to what you say, say something outrageously negative.

SYDELL: And there's been some high-profile negativity on big sites like CNN.com. Lila King, a senior producer there, says during the last presidential election, a commenter kept putting up the same image.

Ms. LILA KING (Senior Producer, CNN.com): It's a little cartoon of a white stick figure and a black stick figure, and the white stick figure with a machine gun in its hand shooting the other stick figure and its heart exploding and red splatters all over the page.

SYDELL: It isn't just the big sites. It's the little blogs and specialty sites like Religion Dispatches. The site has long-form articles that look at the places where religion and politics meet. Many of the writers are scholars and academics.

Editor Lisa Webster says an article written by an expert on Islam got some terrible comments.

Ms. LISA WEBSTER (Senior Editor, Religion Dispatches): Someone from our funder noticed and said, by the way, we're not interested in funding, you know, providing a platform for hate speech.

SYDELL: Webster began to worry that the open comments were detracting from the thoughtful tone of Religion Dispatches.

Ms. WEBSTER: It's also like old magazine days. You don't - if you're doing a restaurant review, you don't put the restaurant review next to an ad for a garbage dump or something like that. You have to think about these things.

SYDELL: Religion Dispatches has a radical solution. They're getting rid of comments. Readers have to send a letter to the editor - it can be an email - but only a few of the best letters get published.

Ms. WEBSTER: I think we're going to lose traffic. I'm hoping it will be sort of a dip, a little roller coaster dip and then it will tick back up eventually.

SYDELL: But some sites want to clean up the comments and still maintain a fast-paced response to events.

Tom Mallory, the content director for the San Diego Union-Tribune's website, says recently they posted a headline that got his users mad. It was about a man who was murdered by a couple of guys who were spray-painting a wall.

Mr. TOM MALLORY (Content Director, San Diego Union-Tribune's Website): The headline unfortunately referred to graffiti artists, which made it seem that they were, you know, van Gogh with a spray can.

SYDELL: Many users accused the Union-Tribune of having a political agenda.

Mr. MALLORY: I weighed it in, said that's a good point, I'll fix the headline. Someone asked another question about why it was written, and the readers started kind of answering and discussing among themselves, accepting my explanation. It was a valuable reader exchange. I'm glad it happened.

SYDELL: Mallory says this helped him see the value of having someone on the staff take part in the conversation, but he says they don't always have the staff available. The Union-Tribune is one of many sites that are using technology.

Mr. MALLORY: With software, you can ban certain words and phrases, and (unintelligible) piques as I've done, gone through the site and found every combination of characters that make nasty words and ban those characters, ban those phrases.

SYDELL: Mallory also thinks that anonymity is a problem. The software lets the paper track users, keep a record of their comments and ban them.

According to the makers of the software called Disqus, their two-year-old product is now being used by 350,000 websites.

But Lila King of CNN.com says her commenters have never been anonymous, yet they still had a problem.

At CNN.com, they decided the solution is to have a real, live person curate the comments and take part in the discussions.

Ms. KING: Really, it's the human touch. It's actually staying inside the conversation and being active and highlighting comments that we think editorially are really interesting or significant, set the tone for what you hope the conversation will be.

SYDELL: If the conversation had been more civil when Miki Hsu Leavey sent her letter about health care, she says she wouldn't mind if people had a different point of view.

Ms. LEAVEY: I think it would be wonderful if we could challenge people who really disagree to have a really great conversation about it, say, a very lively Democrat and a very lively Republican, but really, truly be real in what you're discussing.

SYDELL: If all of these changes, both technical and personal, raise the level of discussion, many sites are hoping more people will feel comfortable joining in the conversation instead of just watching it explode.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: