Countries Seen Through Comments

The comments on the news are more revealing of a culture than the news itself. Journalism too often has a commitment to a sort of sanitized neutrality, and certainly tries for clarity, smoothing away complex disagreements. That has its uses, but the comments are a much messier, more divided, more personal look at a culture. They have the texture of life at street level.

First, America. On January 30 New York Times ran an article headlined “U.S. Suspends Haitian Airlift in Cost Dispute” which described how the US had stopped medical evacuations to Miami because of a state vs. federal arguments over who would pay for their medical care. The comments reveal a deeply divided country:

The richest country in the world bickering about who is going to pay before it treats patients who need critical care from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere! We Americans should be very proud of ourselves!

Another wave of third world, uneducated people of an alien culture is about to hit our shores, helped this time by the Obama administration’s desire to show compassion. Unfortunately, the tax-paying citizens of this country will have to pay, in more ways than one.

Meanwhile, Nigerians are talking about the Underwear Bomber. Global Voices has helpfully collected some of the blogger reactions. For America, the story was about fear and terrorism and security. For Nigeria, it was about reputation and identity:

Be honest, when you heard a Nigerian man tried to commit a terrorist act in America, how many of you immediately thought ‘Please don’t let him be [insert your ethnic group]?

There’s an Igbo proverb that says, “If one finger touches palm oil, it spreads to all the other fingers.” This is indicative of how Nigerians the world over felt when they heard the news of a young man who attempted to detonate a bomb on U.S. soil in the name of Al Qaeda. Many of us worried that the actions of this one finger would spread to cover the entire 150 million of us.

How does disowning him help Nigerians understand what role extreme Islamic ideology played in causing him to attempt detonating an explosive device on board a US-bound airliner? How does it help Nigerians understand the complex interplay of religious faith, access to extremist religious groups and ideological brainwashing?

Meanwile, the ever-wonderful ChinaSMACK took a break from pop-culture scandal (on the site right now: Hong Kong Girl Shows Off C Cup Breasts To Ex-Boyfriend) to translate online Chinese reactions to news of US sales of arms to Taiwan. And the Chinese, often portrayed as uniformly nationalist, are just as diverse and divided as any other country:

We don’t need to fear America selling arms to Taiwan, as soon as a war started these advanced weapons would be quickly consumed by our lower-quality but numerous weapons and many soldiers.

I only know that without America, the whole world would be chaotic.

As long as America exists, the world cannot be peaceful.

What I want to know is, where are the foreign voices in these conversations? Right now each culture is talking about the others like they’re not in the room. And they’re right. Our global conversation is fragmented and unmapped. It’s not a small world after all.

Comments on the New York Times’ Comments System

Here are some problems I see with the implementation of the commenting system on the New York Times web site. Assuming that they want the discussions about their content to be taking place on their site. The way things stand now, I suspect that they’re actively sending many readers to Facebook instead of keeping them on

  • How come some articles allow comment and others don’t? Is the policy of which articles get comments explained anywhere? Arriving at Times content from a link, I’m confused about whether I can expect a good discussion or just broadcast.
  • Even for articles that we are allowed to comment on, the comments are hidden. Sometimes there’s a pull-out quote (which is cool!) but more often we see only this:

    NYTimes hidden comments

  • The number of comments on each article is not visible from the front page or the section pages. There’s no way for readers to see, at a glance, which discussions are hot.
  • The “recommend” button on each comment is welcome, and serves as a useful way to filter comments. The “highlight” button which seems to appear on the more recommended comments is a little more obscure — does it just put the comment in the “highlight” list, or is there editor moderation involved? The “what’s this” tip doesn’t clear this up (click image below for larger)

    Highlight what

  • There is no comment view that is sorted for both relevance and freshness, which is the most useful way to track a discussion. Digg and others get this right by adding a time-weighting to a comment’s position in the list.
  • There is no way to reply to someone else’s comment. This makes it impossible to have a real discussion on the site. Many other commenting systems organize comments into threads. By not supporting this, the Times is saying that we can talk to them, but not to each other.
  • The comments on an article close after a certain point. Although I can see that this might be due to moderator workload issues, it’s also a way to drive away future traffic — as when that link goes viral a week later, or the discussion lasts for months.
  • Speaking of which, the comments are moderated. This topic’s a little more complex: there are advantages and disadvantages to this. But I’d like to note that there are plenty of civil discussions happening on the internet in unmoderated places. The strategy of putting a “flag this” link on each comment that sends it for human review is relevant here.
  • From the comments FAQ: “We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent by e-mail.” Really? Why? Wouldn’t claims of possible errors of fact be the among the first things you’d want readers to see? Your comments are moderated anyway. And I’d like to point out that your own journalists and editors read the site too — you need those corrections up quickly for internal communication (see: the hilarious Washington Post vs. Public Enemy “911” correction saga.)

In short, the comment system seems to be to have been designed by someone who has never responded to a message that says “there’s a great discussion about that going on at [link].”