Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Pay Attention to Comments

I will admit that I have a love/hate relationship with "comments" online. Often, the comments section of anything posted to the web is where you will most rapidly find the trolls of the Internet, and I am frequently shocked at what people will write online with no regard for the feelings of others. They don't seem to be aware of what they are doing to their own digital reputation either, or maybe they just don't care.


I spend a fair amount of time reading the thoughtful work of other educators, researchers, journalists, parent advice columnists, bloggers, etc.  In the digital realm of non-trolls, the comments are often my favorite part of these posts. When respectful feedback is shared, especially that which may challenge the author's opinions, I learn more. It's that simple.

More and more Americans get their news digitally these days, about 50% according to a recent Pew study. With the abundance of information available online it becomes even easier to be a selective reader by looking for links which follow your interests and leaving out those which you don't care so much about. I do this all the time, which on the one hand is great because there is so much valuable information at my disposal, but it also prompts me to look quite critically at my own biases* and beliefs. How much time do I spend reading the opinions of those with whom I disagree? Do I truly have an open mind when I am searching digital media?

*Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs. (Skeptic's Dictionary)

Of course, with this blog and the work I do, I am naturally looking for resources that I think are beneficial for others to read. We are promoting "ethics in the digital world," so I look for things that are thought-provoking, offer good advice, advocate for good decision-making, and explore more deeply the experiences of young people in the digital age. But does that mean that the resources I share and read myself are always the best? Are there not a multitude of opinions out there? Especially when it comes to parenting, everyone has their way of doing things, and these are deeply personal beliefs that can easily spark conflict with those who do it differently. When I'm feeling really brave I will offer my own thoughts and feelings on this blog, somewhat fearful of a challenging comment, but hopeful that whatever feedback I get will help me expand my own thinking and clarify my positions on issues.

In this regard, comments are powerful tools, not to be skipped over. The free exchange of ideas happens in the comments, the very place that changed the internet to "Web 2.0" because there is an opportunity to interact here. Even when I find an article or post that says to me, "That's exactly how I feel!" I will scroll through the comments to hear the opinions of others, hoping that what I find either challenges my thinking, or helps confirm my beliefs (it IS nice to at least feel "right" once in a while).

How comments are moderated makes a huge difference as well. The better sites monitor their comments, offer ways for users to flag inappropriate material, or in the best cases, only allow comments to be posted when they meet a specific set of criteria. That certainly helps weed out the trolls. However, it doesn't guarantee you won't run across the occasional--sometimes frequent--negative comment that someone posts out of anger or frustration.

Comments, it seems, are everywhere! It can be tempting to just avoid them altogether (believe you me, I've learned by trial and error which sites have the worst offenders), but there are true gems buried in the minefield, and developing the critical thinking (and patience, and skimming skills) necessary to pick out the gems is worth our time. Teaching our students good comment writing, and the ability to accept and deliver constructive criticism,  are skills we work on at school. A simple "Good job!" or "that's dumb" isn't very helpful. Comments and critiques are better when they provide specific feedback and evidence to back up opinions. Even when people disagree, comments can be written respectfully. As parents and educators, we need to teach and model this skill for our kids. It might also be nice if someone could invent "comment goggles" that only show us the good stuff...just sayin'.*

Perhaps my favorite example of well-moderated comments (and this whole comment conundrum, actually) comes from a post by Dr. Scott McLeod that I read about two years ago, entitled "Goodbye, Mark," in which he comes to the difficult conclusion that he must actually block a commenter from his blog. His post is great, but so are (you guessed it) the comments left by other much thought-provoking material here. I particularly like this one:

I respect, Scott, how hard it was for you to make the decision to block someone from your blog. I know—based on your words here and in the conversations that I’ve had with you over the years—that you see every contributor as a potential co-learner. You’re not afraid of dissent—and in many ways, that’s what draws so many of us to the conversations that happen here in the comment sections of your blog.
But I think everyone—and that includes the Marks of the world—needs to recognize that co-learning carries a responsibility to come to conversations with an open mind.
They need to see fellow commenters as members of the same learning team—-and if they’re not willing to embrace that sense of “we’re intellectually in this together” and “I can learn from you and you can learn from me even when we disagree” then they aren’t productive contributors any more. ~Bill

Give it a shot. Do you have a thoughtful, critical, helpful comment you could leave?

*there ARE actually "comment goggles" in the form of add-ons and extensions for your internet browsers. Particularly good is A Cleaner Internet, which provides a view of YouTube without comments, suggested videos, etc. It's lovely. I also recently tried out a Chrome extension that replaces profanity with asterisks. So far it seems to be working!