TL;DR? Don’t read the comments – they’re taking over the internet (and our lives).
Throwing the previous generation under the bus is a major generalization but – OK boomer – hold my beer.
Anonymous Trolling 1990s-2000s
Back in the day if you wanted to start a flame-war or express your true inner ugliness, you did it anonymously or with an unrecognizable internet handle. If you couldn’t comment anonymously, you registered your username as AssClown69 and went about your business.
One of the most prolific places for public trolling “locally” for me was our local papers. The Pioneer Press website, which publishes online under the misleading domain TwinCities.com, and the Star Tribune site.
The Pioneer Press has gone through a variety of commenting systems. The changes were made to both better monetize all the eyes on their popular comments pages and to (possibly?) help filter some of the “rageaholics”. One ramification of switching commenting systems is that all of the comments (both good and bad) on older stories have been cleansed from their website.
Both papers have wrestled with moderating comments and they’re not alone, this 2009 article highlights some of the steps several local publications were taking:
The articles about newspapers trying to wrangle the comment cesspool were published in 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile something else was going on…
Boomers adopt social media
Between 2008 and 2010 social media users climbed 30% for people aged 50-64. It went from a paltry 7% to 37% – over a third of all boomers created accounts, presumably to comment on their grandchildren’s photos. But then they found other places to comment.
With the rise in popularity and adoption of Facebook, several publications switched to Facebook-powered comments. Would the comments section calm down?
Now people would be commenting with their actual, legal full name and possibly an actual picture of their face! As some Pioneer Press and Star Tribune readers lamented, would there be “no fun” in the comments anymore?
The generation that outnumbered and overpowered their parents from the Greatest Generation was now online in social media. The have anything you want generation turned into the say anything you feel generation.
The early internet trolls, which were seen as fringe zealots – hiding anonymously behind their clever username – were now joined by a majority of boomers.
You know those boomers who would look both ways before telling you a racist joke – they’re now empowered with social media. Anonymity didn’t matter anymore, as long as they could avoid the in-person confrontation. They could spew their hate from the comfort of their keyboard, or more conveniently, from their phone.
They forgot that anything they posted would be recorded on the internet forever.
In 2015, the comments on the Star Tribune go so bad that CenturyLink, an internet service provider, blocked comments from StarTribune.com to their subscribers.
This This American Life episode (also from 2015) about commenting online doesn’t paint a prettier picture.
Thus began a no holds barred approach to commenting on all platforms. On Twitter (which is a dumpster fire onto itself) there’s an account called Best of Nextdoor which highlights the vitriol from Nextdoor.com. How meta.
Nextdoor is a fantastic place to bully your neighbors about issues you don’t want to talk about in-person. Never mind that you’re doing this all under your legal name and also your address. 🤦
Social media also has had a dangerous leveling effect where pseudo science and opinion can have as great of an influence as actual science and facts.
In a modern age when a flat-earth theory should be considered ridiculous, we’ve instead given that fringe a better way to connect and fuel their own fire. QAnon was started by an anonymous post on 4Chan – an image site that was dedicated to photochops and memes! Where is the credibility in that? It has baseless conspiracy theory written all over it.
Now it seems that parents
who do drugs have kids who do drugs who believe in conspiracy theories have kids who believe in conspiracy theories.
The fact that I am referencing BuzzFeed (because mainstream news are avoiding QAnon like the non-news it is) is bonkers.
I’m not sure if there is a way out. One mainstream technology pushed by Google called Accellerated Mobile Pages (AMP) has been used proactively to create fake news. It’s like a combination of Phishing and Internet Trolling in one package – make something look official and few will question it – especially if they get their news from Facebook.
I build websites using WordPress professionally, and the mission of WordPress has been to democratize publishing. I can’t help but wonder how many of those fake news sites were produced using WordPress & AMP – it’s terribly easy to set up.
How do you see it going? It doesn’t seem to be getting any better from my vantage point 😞
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