For months, I’ve been mulling over a dilemma of social media, namely, commenting on the web. A recent story on AnnArbor.com provides an instructive case study.
The comments that follow are in response to Ryan Stanton’s story on the city of Ann Arbor’s new Design Board, and its review of the proposed residential high-rise development, the Varsity. A sample, with my initial reactions appended:
Mike D. at 8:26 AM on June 23, 2011
…77 spots for 400 rich kids? Get real. There will be hundreds of BMWs and Land Rovers moving from the East U. area to this part of town, and they’ll need places to park.
How is this the Design Board’s problem? The rich kids can pay for parking just like everybody else. Price it high enough and some of them will leave the Land Rover back at their parents’ home.
yohan at 3:49 AM on June 23, 2011
Some really bad design here; 418 beds and 77 parking spaces is going to be a parking nightmare for the neighborhood to the North…
The neighborhood to the north is already a parking nightmare, if you are too cheap to pay for parking and/or too lazy to walk.
Tom Joad at 10:23 PM on June 22, 2011
What an imposing behemoth. The Manhattanization of downtown Ann Arbor.
And again, here:
What a monstrous encroachment on the swanky condo building across the street. Your view is ruined, your privacy becomes zilch…with a building full of students staring down on you…Keep Manhattan out of downtown.
Manhattanization? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Joad. I think we have a few million people to add before we get anywhere close to that. (Also his perspective appears to have shifted since previously referring to Ann Arbor as a “moribund city.”)
Then there is ‘Bear’: 7 posts on this same story as of this morning. I’ll get to him a bit later.
These excerpts illustrate one aspect of AnnArbor.com’s comments that I’ve always found puzzling, namely the reflexive fear of downtown development and construction that prevails on the site. The bitching starts as soon as the site posts a story about proposed construction downtown.
As the comments above suggest, parking downtown, or the alleged lack thereof, is the number one complaint. Of a proposed hotel on Division:
These plans should not be approved unless on-site parking is offered. Those of us who live here have to jump through hoops to find decent parking downtown, why make out-of-towners do the same?
Another is the pernicious effect of the University of Michigan, a parasite on the city, always gobbling up resources from the community. You see this a lot in stories about the Fuller Road train station:
This is nothing more then a parking deck built for the U… There is no reason for the city to build 700+ parking spots for the U…. If we really want a new “terminal”, tear down the old one, and build it in that spot, or another place where the city (and apparently national) taxpayers aren’t subsidizing a parking lot for the U… i just am sick of paying for the U… The U is not paying for the land…
In response to another story:
UM picks the pockets of everyone. Whether or notthis (sic) structure is going to be on UM property, they should pay for all of it.
Another, from the same story:
(Mayor) Hieftje is an employee of Mary Sue (Coleman) and is just following orders.
If the U continues to act as it’s own country with it’s own laws, let them pay for their own Fire Department the way they do for their own Enforcers.
The destruction of Ann Arbor’s small-town character, which commenters perceive as THE immutable, inviolable core of the city’s identity, is a third motif. To quote the aforementioned Bear:
(W)e are spitting on the past accomplishments of citizens in Ann Arbor who worked hard to make sure this was a vibrant place where people would want to live because we didn’t do such things as develop at all costs… Next thing you know, our downtown will look like downtown detroit or some other major metropolitan center…
God forbid Ann Arbor start to look like a major metropolitan center. Sample responses to an earlier story on the Varsity:
“There was a limit on building height ever since the Tower Plaza (26 floors, 265 ft) blackened our skies and blocked our trees we take such pride in.”
“(A)s Ann Arbor fills its downtown with towers expect the quaint small town feeling to disappear…. forever.”
(Blots a tear)
Other themes that are recycled over and over, inevitably cropping up in response to any development-related story, include the threat posed by building new rental housing for students; the supposed glut of hotel rooms in Washtenaw County, which is cited as evidence that there is no demand for hotel lodging downtown; the supposed corruption and profligacy of Ann Arbor’s elected officials and the AATA; the ridiculousness of bike lanes, bike racks, and infrastructure for bicyclists, who, we are told, are coddled at the expense of motorists and taxpayers; and the fetishization of parkland as the land use solution of choice (see the army mobilized to turn the Library Lot into a park, and another mobilized against the Fuller Road train station).
While I’ve cherry picked as examples some of the comments I find especially ludicrous, I’m not saying all of the perspectives I’ve listed are necessarily wrong. There is plenty of valid debate to be had over the Fuller station (see Vivienne Armantrout’s thoughtful post), the spending priorities of Ann Arbor City Council, and the city’s occupancy rates for both hotel rooms and rental housing. Wherever there is a university, there is an inherent tension between town and gown. Nor is a comment bad just because I disagree with it. That I find the logic a commenter employs to be flawed does not mean I think it is it a bad comment, or that its author is stupid.
It’s not just that I disagree with a lot of AnnArbor.com readers, though. The bigger problem is that the general quality of the comments is just plain terrible. It would be easy for me to churn out a few hundred words a day on this blog just making fun of the venom, reactionary paranoia, irresponsible mud-slinging, and narrowness of thought that finds a warm and cozy home in the comments sections of AnnArbor.com. Assuming they follow a Zipf distribution, I’d venture maybe 20% of users are responsible for 80% of the comments. Unfortunately, this 20% is not the cream of the crop. There’s no quality control. So in order to find one comment of quality, one that actually adds value to the article it responds to, you have to wade through the many more that are simply a waste of pixels and bandwidth.
It’s not clear to me why some websites consistently garner great comments and others fail so abjectly. Part of it is accessibility. The Chronicle’s long, clinical accounts of public meetings are the polar opposite of AnnArbor.com’s fast-food style reporting and pageview-driven headline choices. At times, Dave Askins’ exhaustive and often elliptical reporting demands a superhuman attention span. Consequently, the Chronicle attracts a more educated, involved and thoughtful readership and repels lazy thinkers.
Niche sites seem to do better than general readership site, as well. I’ve almost never seen a throwaway comment at Urbanophile.com, whereas the comments at the Atlantic, which puts out a lot of decent content, are almost as bad as AnnArbor.com.* The discussion on both sites, for some reason, often falls prey to a particular type of troll, which I picture as a fifty-year-old man, living in his mom’s basement, pounding away in his underwear at the keyboard for ten to twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week. Productive, involved members of society, working full time jobs, caring for family members, or otherwise engaged in their communities, simply do not have the same kind of time to dedicate to getting the last word in on arguments with people they have never met.
As a semi-anonymous blogger who by definition is constantly getting in arguments with people I’ve never met, I admit the irony of that last statement. But that’s why I blog rather than just comment. As a blogger, I’m responsible for setting the agenda and the tone of my blog. I try to maintain the discourse to a certain standard, and that means admitting when I’m written something inaccurate, uninformed, or unfair, something I do all the time. I’m constantly aware that my anonymity is fragile; I could be held accountable for what I write by my employers, present or future, at any time, and I try not to write a single word I wouldn’t feel able to defend at a later point. For an anonymous commenter, it’s easy to get by just hurling stones at people you disagree with. I think commenters should have to proof-read, provide evidence, and provide well-reasoned arguments just like anyone else. But too often, they don’t.
So I want to thank my handful of regular commenters, and those who have only commented once or twice, for adding value to my blog the way you do. I’d rather have a few good commenters than dozens of stupid ones.
* Megan McArdle, whose every post nets a few hundred comments within hours of posting, seems to attract a disproportionate share of mean-spirited crazies with a lot of time on their hands.