Argument 4: The few ruin it for the many (aka collective punishment)
When cleveland.com shut down their comments section, one of editor Chris Quinn’s justifications was its general “incivility” despite the section not reflecting the general readership.
Let’s face it: The comments on our site do not reflect you. The people of Northeast Ohio are warm-hearted, generous and caring. When we are going about our days, we greet each other with smiles and hugs and good cheer. But anyone getting their impression of our region from comments on our site would think we are the grumpiest, meanest people in America.
I maintain that this was purely a cost-savings measure given the state of the newspaper industry, but let’s take this argument at face value: that because a relatively few commenters were “uncivil”, the entire community should lose their ability to publicly comment on cleveland.com.
Let me illustrate why this is a terrible justification with a story of my own failing, a tale of my worst decision as site runner at Let’s Go Tribe.
[Note: I’m leaving out individual names, as my purpose is not to point fingers almost a decade after this happened, but rather to present an example that others may learn from. However, I will say I was not the main defender of LGT’s readers and interests, which is why it still haunts my conscience all these years later. Most of that heavy lifting was done by someone else, who I think was unfairly targeted for trying to maintain public comity between SBN sites.]
In July 2011, SBN’s baseball sites ran an advertising campaign from Head and Shoulders titled “Hats Off Moments”, with each team site contributing a countdown of the top 10 All-Star performances in franchise history while having a “sponsored by Head and Shoulders” at the top of the post. In addition, the game threads would also have the same message as well. The content was relevant to the site, it wasn’t hard to put together that content, the advertiser got its logo in the main body of the site, and the site got what was at the time a nice payday. It was a good thing for everyone.
However, one aspect of the campaign was that there would be also be a Head and Shoulders Twitter widget which would display prominently at the top of the site, displaying all tweets with a certain hashtag (ours was #HatsOffCLE).
Those of you well-versed in Internet behavior can start to see the problem, which was obvious even back then…
A few Tigers fans (this was right in the middle of their AL Central dominance) saw the obvious opportunity and took it, using the hashtag to troll Tribe fans via the widget, circumventing the site rules. I couldn’t remove the tweets (obviously), and I couldn’t take down the advertisement. It was the perfect opportunity to troll another fanbase without any consequences.
But what made it worse was that this behavior was being encouraged by Bless You Boys (SBN’s Tigers blog) staff. By August, with the Tigers pulling away in the AL Central race, the tweets were constant. When asked (politely) to tell its readers to cut it out, BYB’s response was essentially “not our problem,” or referenced a May Fanshot that justified this so-called payback. This went against an unstated but universally understood principle among SBN blogs that you weren’t supposed to badmouth other sites, or encourage your readers to do the same. We were following that principle publicly, but behind the scenes there were heated e-mails flying back and forth. We just wanted an apology for the actions taken and for them to repudiate their previous encouragements, but the other site continued to double down. It seemed like a matter of protecting “their guy” being more important than following the network norms, especially because that other site was an Indians blog.
Leaving a lot of details out…the feud was escalated to the network, and instead of them telling the site that started the whole thing to cut it out and publicly disavow its previous behavior, the onus was placed in no uncertain terms on both our sites to bury the hatchet, lest it become a public feud and tarnish the network brand. I caved, and updated the Ground Rules with a 10th rule on September 7th while BYB posted something similar:
Our readers should treat users from other SBN sites with respect, even if they happen to root for the Yankees. In other words, everything that applies to your behavior towards fellow Tribe fans should apply to fans of rival teams; ground rule violations towards fans of other teams will be actively discouraged and moderated just as vehemently as violations against regular readers.
The Yankees reference was a red herring. This was all about admonishing LGT readers to be nice to Tigers fans, an admonishment that didn’t need to happen because our readers weren’t doing anything wrong, and everyone on the LGT masthead was actively and publicly discouraging retaliation.
In cases like this, where the people that you represent are being unfairly lumped in with those who were causing problems, I needed to be an advocate for them, but failed to do so. I just wanted the mess over with, and was beginning to feel that if I didn’t get it over with soon, one of the other authors would get thrown under the bus or we’d all be sacked. I chose the path of least resistance, immediately regretted it, with that regret only growing over the years.
The moral of the story should be that you should, whenever possible, punish the rules violators only rather than the vast majority who did nothing wrong. Cleveland.com, rather than using their own overly broad community rules to weed out what they thought were the bad apples, decided to remove comments for everyone by closing their comments section entirely.