For years I have credited the New Haven Independent with the high level of civic engagement in New Haven. They report on content that is truly local and interesting and accessible in a way that makes me and many others want to be involved. Melissa Bailey was the first person I bounced the idea of SeeClickFix off of. Paul Bass and team have inspired citizens to participate in ways that I did not think journalists were really supposed to. For the most part they made us proud of the place where we live regardless of its many flaws.
But aside from informing us they also provided an arguably more valuable function. One that did not exist in print or broadcast. They gave us a public forum for civic debate. For years I loved commenting on the New Haven Independent and the cast of characters that would fire comments back. When I commented it felt constructive and I felt like my thoughts were contributing to the improvement of New Haven. For many of the commenters of the Independent the comments were social in the way that we felt we were doing something valuable for society not just for our connections to others.
Over the past couple of years however the comments section became less attractive to me. I wondered if it was just me getting tired with the medium or if it was something in the moderation. Many times I was annoyed by the ridiculously politicized and cruel nature of the comments and many times I was just bored with the redundancy.
It turns out that I was not alone and Paul has decided as of today that the comments are off indefinitely on NHI. I'd encourage you to read that article here: http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/time_out/ and comment
and comment below here as you can not on the NHI.
Sadly I don't actually have any blog readers so the debate will likely be me and myself...but maybe that will be more multi-sided :)
Here's my take on all of this to fuel the conversation:
We have local news sites that do a horrendous job at creating meaningful debate by using poor algorithms for moderation. See WTNH.com. Those sites should kill their comment sections. It is not good for society and they need to shape up.
We also have sites like SeeClickFix which have had their trolls but have focused algorithmically to remove them. I think we've done a pretty good job but its really hard and we have the advantage of very topic specific content with a central goal of resolution. The site is constructive by design where WTNH is destructive by design. I won't comment further on that. You can form your own opinion if you own a television and visit their website.
And then there's the Independent. The Independent covers the tough policy level and societal level issues in New Haven and still managed to create relatively civil debate. The problem here is that Paul and team are not computer assisted in their moderation as far as I know. They have content policies as we do at SeeClickFix but they depend on humans to be the first filter where other local sites with comments make the human the second filter. I think that the Independent can go on with comments but they need a better algorithm. Algorithmic authority helps squash bias, if done correctly, and compensates for tired humans.
I hope that Paul and team will look for help to create this algorithm as it would be truly sad to lose the New Haven Independent to the folks who shamelessly and selfishly brought Paul and team to their knees with their hateful and destructive commentary. If we can find a way to house people in real-life on our real-life public square, see Occupy NHV, I'm sure we can find a way to virtually house conversations in a civil way as well.