It was once pointed out to me that, more often than not, things that seem like a great idea but never really become popular are probably just not very good ideas.
This is counter to the school of thought that there are All These Great Ideas out there that Nobody is paying attention to, but would Really Change Things As We Know Them if we would just embrace them. I have been a victim of this way of thinking on many occasions, so I know how seductive it can be.
So I have this idea for solving the ongoing problem of uncivil online conversations. This is a real and growing problem.
The problem is so bad that NPR announced last month that they were discontinuing their online comment system for their news stories. This is despite the fact that Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news, has said that they “believe strongly in the value of audience conversations about the news and our work.” This is in spite of eight years of trying to make it work. This is in spite of saying they wanted a “forum for infinite conversations.”
And they finally threw in the towel. According to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, they got “overwhelmed” using staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. They upped their game in 2011 and again in 2012, “trying to find a workable solution.”
But they seem to have never considered one potentially workable solution. As I have discussed before, the biggest problem with online comments is that they are anonymous and free of charge. One way to fix that is to charge money for the privilege of leaving a comment. It would provide revenue and encourage more thoughtful discussion.
NPR–like most news organizations–is operating under the perception that online comments must be free, or not exist at all. Why they have not considered a compromise option is a mystery to me.
In real life, the exchange of money serves many purposes. One of them is as a gauge of how much you really want something. Do you value it highly? You pay more money. Don’t care? You look for cheap or free.
This is basic economics.
When people leave nasty, uncivil comments on news sites, it is because they have nothing at stake. So it seems obvious that NPR and other news services would find a way for their readers to care more about the things they say.
Make them put their money where their mouths–or keyboards–are.
But maybe this just isn’t a good idea.