Sometime on Tuesday, MercatorNet
passed a milestone. A reader typed in the 10,000th comment on our
site and one of our editors approved it. I felt like popping a bottle
of champagne. We have arrived!

Where we have arrived, I’m not sure.
The comments feature — which we introduced only a couple of years
after the site had been launched — sometimes baffles me. Why do so
many people want to stick their oar in?

Before it started, I envisaged the
comments feature as a community forum with contributors supplementing
the argument or facts in the article. I was seduced by the power of
the wiki, the notion of the "wisdom of crowds". The
cumulative effect of the comments would be to further MercatorNet’s
goal of promoting human dignity.

To some extent, this happens. A
particularly interesting article prompts thoughtful voices of
agreement or disagreement. New angles open up. Comments which are
inconsistent with the ideals of the site are corrected by other
readers. In the cut and thrust of the conversation, the issues are
seen more clearly. Ideally, it’s like a public lecture, followed by
a discussion. A moderator ensures that the comments are pointed, calm
and diverse and that no one monopolises the microphone. Everyone
learns.

On the whole comments are a great idea.
They attract readers and they make the
site far livelier. I have regretted not installing the
comments feature right from the beginning of MercatorNet.

However, there are some flies in the
ointment.

First, moderating the comments is a lot
of work. Moderation is always needed. We have to protect the site
from cyberspace spruikers promoting their blogs or their products
with comments like “Very toughtfull argument prsented in this blog.
Most delighted to discover it. Check out Safe as Houses Home Loans.
Low interests, no deposite.” Normally such information is of little
interest to our readers and we delete them. We don’t want
MercatorNet articles to be festooned with junk mail
advertising Viagra and fake Rolexes.

A second problem is anger. What I
failed to anticipate is that there is a little bit of Osama bin Laden
in all of us. “Death to the infidels!” is Mr bin Laden’s creed.
He has a right to his convictions, surely but he would moderate their
intensity if he actually eyeballed one of the despised
crusaders and shook hands with him. But he never has and so, without a
qualm, he dispatches suicide bombers and beheads captives. 

The internet is a bit like that. You
never see your antagonist. You can’t read his body language or hear
the timbre of his voice. All you know about him is the message that
lordfarquhar (a pseudonym, no doubt) has left at the foot of a
MercatorNet article. Sometimes it’s sensible and you tap in
words of jolly bonhomie.

But sometimes lordfarquhar makes a comment  which oozes such slack-jawed stupidity, such moronic ignorance,
such slobbering imbecility, that you feel compelled to warn him of
his mental state and suggest that a frontal lobotomy is in order.

Not surprisingly, lordfarquhar is
sceptical of your diagnostic skills and inquires whether your
gerontologist has given you a dementia check lately. To which you
reply… and so on.

Amazingly, on the internet, intelligent
and well-intentioned people can spiral downwards into a vortex of
vituperation. This affects all sites, even eminent ones like the New
York Times
or the London Telegraph. I don’t wish to
offend anyone, so let me quote a few examples beneath an article in The New Republic by
Michael Walzer about Israel and Palestine. (Professor Walzer, by the way, is a 24-carat gentleman, a man of
dignity and distinction.) Here are some responses:

"You are a
moral cretin. Seriously. Recognize it and try and change."

"The lying
eyes of [Mr X] have never seen a dead Jew. And when they have, it has
filled his black soul with joy."

"Your
flippant dismissal of Michael Walzer is just your latest display of
arrogant, self-satisfied ignorance."

"Hamas are
demented terrorist pigs seeking to emulate their hero Adolf Hitler
and perpetrate a second Holocaust. The sooner Israel kills every one
of those bastards the better."

On MercatorNet these comments
would been deleted, but America's most influential political magazine appears to tolerate them. Actually, I have been congratulated a few times on the civility of debates in MercatorNet compared to other sites. It has sometimes been quite edifying to see the generosity of spirit with which some readers  have acknowledged that they had been wrong or ill-informed. 

A third problem is the standard of
argument. Some comments are quite valuable and we incorporate them
into future articles. But others are textbook examples of logical
fallacies. They are all there: red herrings, non sequiturs,
argumentum ad hominem, petitio principii, begging the question,
argumentum ad ignorantiam – and more. We have rules about abusive
language and objectionable content and by and large people observe
them. But what about abusive reasoning? Should commenters be allowed
to tar and feather the facts and to torture logic?

A fourth problem is when to end the debate.
The last man standing in the ring wins the prize fight and some
commenters appear to think that making the last comment will deliver
a KO blow to lordfarquhar’s glass jaw. If comments remain open
indefinitely, the slugfest can continue for weeks. That must be why
the New York Times closes its comments within a few days.

Finally, there are attacks by cyber-terrorists who set
Improvised Explosive Devices beneath articles on inflammatory topics
like abortion and homosexuality. MercatorNet accommodates a
wide range of opinions, but at its core is a view of human dignity
with a transcendent dimension. Most readers like this approach. But
some don’t; they loathe it. And their mission in life, for a while
at least, is to leave as many provocative comments as possible on the
site.

This is a bit unsettling for the
editors, because we are serious about promoting human dignity. Are we
subverting it by giving its foes a platform to promote their ideas?

We have concluded that there is little
danger of this. Contradictory views ensure that the site doesn't
become a hothouse of smug self-congratulation and mutual admiration.
And normally they are very competently refuted by readers who are
more sympathetic to our philosophy.

But we do think that it departs from
the ideal of a forum. In a real-life forum no one is allowed to ask
six questions or to hog the microphone to abuse another person in
the audience. The purpose of a forum is to clarify and amplify points
made in the lecture, not to vent one's spleen.

With that in mind, we plan to change
the guidelines for commenting in MercatorNet slightly.
Articles will be open for comments for one week only and each
contributor will be allowed a maximum of three or four comments. We
are going to rename it "Readers' forum".

But, all in all, our first 10,000
comments have been a great success. I look forward to the next
10,000. Keep them coming!

Michael Cook is editor of
MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.