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A Requiem for Trolls Gone By

I’m Nostalgic for Nasty Online Commenters

For a decade, they plagued me. Called me bitch, boob, bigot. Speculated about my weight and marriage. Pronounced my children morons. They spewed countless frothy phrases at me from the online comment section at the end of my columns.
Now they’re gone.
In February, the Santa Barbara Independent joined the growing crowd of news sites shutting down their online comments. Reuters, CNN, Bloomberg, NPRNBC News, the Chicago Sun-Times — the websites of media companies are slamming their windows on the fast-flying fingers of the fractious fruitcakes who spend their days anonymously picking fights with writers, public figures … and, well, mostly with other fractious fruitcakes.

Last week I moderated a panel on online comments for the local chapter of American Women in Communication. Reps from the IndependentNoozhawkKEYT, and Edhat said they had great hopes for online comments when they launched.
“They were supposed to be awash in this great democratic process where the best voices would rise to the top,” said Matt Kettmann, senior editor at the Indy. They thought it would give rise to citizen journalism and terrific news tips. In 10 years, he recalls only one valuable tip from a comment.
Comments sections have grown increasingly vicious over the years, said Tom Bolton, executive editor at Noozhawk, which shut down its comments in January. “You’d watch somebody new kind of wander in,” he said, chuckling, “and you’d think, Boy, they’re gonna get stomped! Don’t go in there!’”
Edhat publisher Lauren Bray said their list of comment policies is getting longer and longer because people keep finding more “creative” ways to break the rules. Bolton said policing these forums is like playing Whac-A-Mole: “We banned people, and they’d pop up again with another name or IP address.”
Monitoring every comment for racist, sexist, threatening, or otherwise offensive or illegal language squanders the limited resources of news organizations. “That means somebody not writing a story if they have to sit there all day and babysit,” said Jim Lemon, KEYT’s news director.
Neither Noozhawk nor the Indy has seen an impact on web traffic — or an uptick in letters to the editor — since shutting down comments.
But I’ve personally seen an uptick in the number of super-creepy NRA supporters who found my cell phone number and texted me (okay, one, but he’s armed). For that reason and others, I have to admit something surprising:
I’m gonna miss my damned trolls.
Folks often ask if I read the comments on my columns, and I always wanted to say no. That seems like what a healthy person would say. But the truth is I always did read them. Because they made my work better.
I knew the snapping piranhas would always be there, their jaws clamped onto the bottom of my story, tearing into some point I hadn’t made clear enough or compelling enough. If there was even a tiny hole in my argument, they’d pry it open and start eating the thing from the inside out. In response, my arguments became tighter. I wasn’t satisfied — indeed I wasn’t done — until those cackling turd flingers were unable to find purchase in my paragraphs.
Online comments weren’t all bad, of course; they came in levels. First you’d get the kneejerk reactions of folks who like to squawk. Then came a few loyalists, if you’re lucky, defending your honor (much obliged, fair loyalists!). Finally, and only occasionally, you might get somewhere really interesting: to a broader dialogue, having kicked off a worthwhile conversation between mostly intelligent strangers.
Who’s going to bully me into making my arguments airtight now? Who’s going to use my musings as a springboard for digital debates that rage on and on until someone posts an irrelevant YouTube clip? William, the rifle-toting texter?? Pfffyeahright.
Lately, I reflexively scroll to the bottom of my columns when they’re published online, to see what the trolls are howling about now. There’s no one there.
Farewell, fruitcakes. I’m better for having resented you.
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