Vulgar readers lead to ‘failure’ of Israeli interactive comments

Sections of the Israeli online news media are fretting over whether to retain reader response features on their stories.

Ynetnews, the English-language version of the site allied to Hebrew newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth opened its stories to reader comments two years ago after its bedfellow started receiving 10,000 daily comments. Papers like Haaretz duly followed also adding what Israelis call the “talkback” feature.

But editor and columnist Bradley Burston is now questioning whether the facility to let readers speak back outweighs the “racism, the vulgarities, the pettiness, and the extraordinary torrents of venom” that many readers put back in.

We had great hopes for it,” he wrote. “We believed [readers would] engage in rational debate and perhaps forge bonds of understanding based on mutual respect and an openness to the thoughts of others.

“What we discovered, was the propensity of respondents to curse each other, denigrate each other, dismiss, excoriate, and sling mud in terms that would make a bathroom wall blush.

Talkbacks are good for business. They engage readers. In the language of the business manager, they generate traffic. But they also repel. It is time to rethink the talkback.

Former Ynetnews managing director and editor Alan Abbey echoed Burston’s assessment.

“In all of the hundreds of talkbacks we reviewed at Ynetnews, and which I still read today on all the Israeli media sites, I can’t say I ever saw someone write, ‘You know, you’re right. Your comments make a lot of sense. I think I am going to have to revise my thinking on this matter’,” he wrote.

“Instead, I see people digging in their heels, taking the most extreme positions, and defending sometimes indefensible positions on both sides of the so-called security barrier (or fence, or wall).

“From a civil discourse perspective (at least so far in Israeli media) I think they have been a dismal failure.”

Israeli is a country that could do with a fair share of civil online discourse, but open commenting remains problematic elsewhere.

The Guardian’s Commentisfree editor Georgina Henry, along with other columnists, has frequently bemoaned the abusive responses some readers make at the newspaper’s blog portal.

A proposed BBC-style feature allowing readers to rate their own comments has not yet materialised. Meanwhile, a debate about online civility was sparked when one blogger, Kathy Sierra, was driven offline by lurid death threats.

But, for other titles, there is no let-up in the bold move toward open-access commenting.

In recent redesigns, Times Online and both this year introduced such access across each of their story pages.