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Now easier to put an oar in

by 6 Apr 20112 comments

Richard A Muller

Inconvenient and Maddening: Prof. Richard A Muller, until now the darling of climate denialists, has dismayed that camp by testifying that his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group’s preliminary findings are in accord, effectively, with Dr James Hansen and the balance of the scientific community. Photograph The Guardian

The concept of comment functionality is consummate. Online publications can routinely provide comments functionality at the foot of every article to allow readers to do instantly what once would have required mailing (or more recently, e‍ ‍mailing) a letter to the editor.

Readers of the Mahurangi Magazine may have wondered why it lacked that now all-but-ubiquitous feature. The magazine started life as the editor’s best shot at providing Mahurangi Actionat time of publication titled Friends of the Mahurangi with a web presence. It was deliberately styled a magazine in the belief that if the content was wide-ranging it would attract more readers than if it was strictly confined to Mahurangi Action issues or policies.

The editor’s presumption was that readers would be comfortable with the concept that articles were not necessarily the view of the publisher, the society. When it became apparent that not all members of the executive shared this view, the Mahurangi Magazine acquired a new publisher; one who was adamant about editorial independence.

When it was ostensibly a Mahurangi Action publication, had comments functionality been provided, it was a certainty that at least one malcontent would have made it his life’s work to denigrate every article published. The easy solution was to adhere to the time-honoured practice of publishing any letters the editor considered of interest to the readership. The alternative, of moderating online contributions, could have proved decidedly fraught.

Since the Mahurangi Magazine became independent, the editor has not been tempted to provide for unmoderated comment. Richard Glover, in a National Times piece precisely identifies the reason:

You can read a perfectly decent paper like the Guardian and looming at the bottom of every article is a septic tank teeming with snapping trolls.

The article in question might be anything from a think piece about the universe by Stephen Hawking to a sly piece of wit by David Mitchell, yet the trolls always have the same view: ‘OMG, this is such crap.’

The Australian writer’s Why the Internet Will Destroy the Planet is artfully woven around the backlash to 13-year-old YouTube phenomenon Rebecca Black, which he describes as the first planet-wide act of bullying. But it is humanity itself, he suggests is at risk:

It’s increasingly apparent that the internet may bring about the death of human civilisation, beating out previous contenders such as nuclear holocaust and the election of George W Bush.

Glover’s claim is as overblown as its delightful title suggests, but he is right to the extent that denialists do successfully swamp and sabotage the comments sections of any publication that consistently addresses anthropogenic global warming. And by doing so, cripples an online capability that should be providing more power to the writer’s arm. Publications that allow their comment facilities to be abused in this way must shoulder much of responsibility, particularly as it is presumably a failure to adequately resource their moderating teams.

The New York Times editorial The Truth, Still Inconvenient discusses the recent Congressional hearings on climate science. Three of the five supposed expert witnesses called by the Republicans lacked relevant qualifications. One who was qualified, physicist Richard Muller, known for his criticism of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings. Prof. Muller surprised Congress by testifying that his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project’s preliminary results had indeed found a global warming trend:

…very similar to that reported by the prior groups.

Predictably, an avalanche of comments followed—428 of ’em, of which the New York Times’s diligent moderating team highlighted just 18. However, at 3000 words, the highlighted comments are nearly four times as wordy as the entire article. The total ‘septic tank’ is a brimming 53‍ ‍000‑word brew, much of it vitriolic.

To put its money where its mouth is, the Mahurangi Magazine, with this piece, now introduces comments functionality. The moderation policy will mimic that of the New York Times:

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments—either by the same reader or different readers.

Value, of course is the key. Hard‑copy periodicals functioned happily with just a modicum of feedback, in the form of letters to the editor.

The feedback that has sustained this magazine up until now is the occasional email, and the readership data—March saw precisely 2500 visits.

A record for a non-regatta month.

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