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Engaging readers, going beyond comments

The comments section has not pushed the boundary in debates; it has created a space for digital vigilantes and virtual lynch mobs

August 22, 2016 12:59 am | Updated October 16, 2016 09:31 am IST

On August 14, The Hindu published an interview with the celebrated Marathi playwright, Mahesh Elkunchwar, headlined, “I eat, sleep, dream in Marathi”. Tamil writer Era. Murugan wrote to us about a comment from a reader, K. Seshu, on that interview that read: “Marathi is a rich language and has produced great writers and thinkers. This writer is one of them. He has worked for people’s theatre and has done a lot for the development of street plays. Dr. Storm Lagoon (emphasis added) has also produced great works.” Mr. Murugan rightly pointed out that it should have been Dr. Shreeram Lagoo, and autocorrect reduced the thespian, author and poet to ‘Storm Lagoon’. Mr. Murugan’s contention was that there is no major creator with the name ‘Storm Lagoon’ and that the desk, particularly the subeditor who cleared the comments, was ignorant of the immense contributions of Dr. Lagoo.

Mr. Murugan’s complaint is about the lapses on the part of the commenter who did not realise that autocorrect was rendering a famous theatre and film personality to a waterbody, and the failure of the moderators to take notice of the inherent limitations of autocorrect regarding proper nouns that are not familiar to the code writers in Silicon Valley. However, his mail is a timely reminder to look at the comments section itself in its entirety. It has always been a challenge for both the editorial team and the Readers’ Editor, especially when readers compare the quality of writing above the line with those below the line. Why should the below-the-line text fail to adhere to the standards that The Hindu upholds for the text above the line in its Web edition? What should be the permissible leeway to encourage readers’ participation without undermining the quality and the intensity of the debate? Are there other means to have sustained feedback from the readers and offer space for their opinions?

I have dealt with the multiple problems that flow from the comments section in earlier columns: “ >Yes to criticism, no to vitriol ” (November 25, 2013), “ >Hilary Mantel is not alone ” (May 5, 2014), “ >Saving public sphere from trolls ” (August 25, 2014), “ >Undeterred by malice ” (August 1, 2015) and “ >Of doctored content and vile comments ” (February 22, 2016).

Commenters should first know why most media organisations opened their spaces for comments. Editors imagined that creating a space for reactions and responses from the readers would strengthen the public sphere in a Habermasian sense. The idea was that there would be digital empowerment — multiple voices would be amplified, listened to, and responded to, and there would be participation and mutual learning. It was a step taken to move away from the one-to-many narratives of the analogue media and create a polyphony that represented the layered reality of our complex world. In a larger sense, it was the media’s response to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s clarion call: “The future of the Web depends on ordinary people discussing it, taking responsibility for it and challenging those who seek to control the Web for their own purposes. The first step is to answer one simple question: what kind of Web do we want?”

The digital conundrum However, the comments section has failed to live up to its expectations. It has not pushed the boundary in debates that cover subjects ranging from politics to economy, sports to arts and culture, society to technological disruptions. On the other hand, it has created a space for digital vigilantes and virtual lynch mobs. We question the use of anonymous sources in journalism and the problem it poses to good reporting and informed public discourse. What is our position regarding anonymity in digital space that has been used by a small but voluble section of commenters to breach the line that divides criticism and abuse? As a person handling complaints and suggestions from the readers, I can vouch for the fact that important and substantial contributions have come in the form of mails rather than comments.

Over the last two years, many news organisations began to evaluate the usefulness of the comments section. Some have decided to shut down the section fully: Reuters , Recode , The Verge , Popular Science , Chicago Sun-Times and The Week . The public broadcaster, NPR , is the latest one to join this list. Scott Montgomery, Managing Editor of NPR , said: “After much experimentation and discussion, we've concluded that the comment sections on stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users. In order to prioritise and strengthen other ways of building community and engagement with our audience, we will discontinue story-page comments on on August 23.”

In this context, I think it would be beneficial for The Hindu to rework its digital engagement with its readers. The new weekly feature of The Guardian , ‘Guardian Social’, which debates the week with the readers, seems to be an interesting format. It is a structured discussion that runs every Friday from 12 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. Readers are invited to pose their questions on the website. They are expected to answer some crucial questions: “What would you like to discuss during our guardian social? Explain why. Share a question for one of Guardian’s journalists.” It also gives the readers three choices in publishing their responses: yes with the identity of the reader; yes but the reader remains anonymous; and no.

‘The Hindu Social’ may be a way forward for engaging with the readers in a meaningful manner without opening up the digital space for spite, venom, vitriol and abuse.

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