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Going Merrily Down The Patch Comment Stream

Some thoughts on this fascinating evolution of community engagement and the role we all play in it.

The key is intention.

When we post a story on Patch, we always invite our users to comment. Our goal at Patch is to get a conversation going in our community. We want people to come here and engage each other, explore ideas together. These communities are where we live, work, go to school. Of course we have opinions about them.

Largely, the folks who comment on Patch have the intention to posit their points of view for others to consider and respond to. If the subject is political, it’s normal for the exchange to have some heat. If the subject involves some local controversy, we expect a vivid exchange of verbs and nouns.

While this may be uncomfortable for the conflict-averse, overall this exchange of ideas is how we come to clarify our own points of view. Robust debate, or just tips on where to get the best ice cream cone – these are the value of the comment stream.

But some people have a different intention when they post comments. There are those who, for whatever reason, see the need to provoke, to prod, to spark outrage and vitriol. Their comments seem designed to shock. They cross the bounds of decency, of our common-understood social contract that there are some things we just won’t say given a particular set of circumstances. Computers allow this breach of boundaries easily, because the poster is not accountable for his or her words in a face to face context.

When this situation arises, Patch editors have a dilemma – do we decide to delete the offensive comments? Do we shut down the comment stream? Do we suspend the offensive user? Or do we keep allowing the posts, hoping that the more reasonable people will prevail?

There is no one right answer. We have a Terms of Service that everyone agrees to abide by when they sign up with Patch — it's at the very bottom of the homepage. Not everyone follows those terms. When there are ongoing breaches, we usually take action and suspend the account. We monitor the comment stream, though it’s not always clear what the right course of action is when people with different intentions weigh in. A point of view might be offensive but does that mean it should be deleted? Who makes that call?

As journalism moves from “I tell you what is going on, you passively read about it” to this new model of “Here’s what I found out about this, what do you think?” we all have to figure out some new rules, new boundaries. We’re going to have to be more open to ideas that might offend. But we’re also going to have to learn to ramp up the notion of common courtesy, of mutual consideration. Our ideas cannot be expressed at the expense of someone’s dignity — not if our ideas are to have any enduring merit.

So please keep posting your comments, Patchers. We invite your points of view. Please, when you post those comments, consider your intention. If provoking outrage or challenging an accepted social compact is your only goal, maybe the comment stream is a place to stay away from. 

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