The Universal Notebook: No comment


Over Memorial Day weekend I deleted my Disqus account. After years of duking it out with readers in the comments section, I will not be replying to critics or commenting on the writing of others, at least for the near future.

The short answer to why I decided to take a break from online engagement is that I simply concluded it wasn’t worth the time and effort. There is enough negative energy in my life without inviting aggravation from people I don’t know.

Most readers are reasonable people who state their opinions, make their arguments and present their cases. A handful of frequent flyers, however, take everything personally and never have anything to offer except insult and invective. A few have gotten downright creepy in their obsession with my every word.

I made the decision to digitally disengage at a time when more and more Americans are questioning the value of social media. On the one hand, the internet spreads ideas and information far, fast and wide. On the other hand, much of that information is false, unreliable or misleading.

According to the ProCon.Org website, close to 70 percent of Americans use social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn and Pinterest. The same site reports that these social media networks are one of the primary sources of news for 46 percent of Americans, compared to 66 percent for television, 26 percent for newspapers and 23 percent for radio. If you wonder how we got in the mess we are in with a post-truth presidency of lies and deceit, look no further than Americans confusing nonsense with news, i.e., George Soros was a Nazi and Obama is a Muslim.

The negativity of the ongoing digital dialogue in this country brings out the worst in people, especially when they are allowed to post anonymously, a practice I would change were it in my power. Still, I post under my own name and it brings out the worst in me, too.

Most of my columns are carefully considered and worded and then held for a day or two before being submitted to an editor, but most of my posts are unedited, heat-of-the-moment responses. The ones I come to regret, edit and delete tend to be written in the evening after consuming an adult beverage or two. If I do return to the online Disqus-ion, I plan to adopt the “Al Diamon Rule.”

Al and I have been friends since college, so I got in touch with him and a couple of other well-known local journalists to see what they thought about interaction with readers.

“Once happy hour begins,” Al told me, “I don’t reply to emails until the following morning.”

Al, author of “Politics & Other Mistakes,” only replies to online comments if they ask a legitimate question that calls for a response. I got in the habit of replying to most comments, except those by known racists, troublemakers and trolls.

Colin Woodard, one of the state’s leading journalists, told me he doesn’t read the online comments at the bottom of his Portland Press Herald articles “because the quality of discussion is usually so poor I don’t see the point in participating in it. If someone has something important to say, they usually contact me via email or phone, or comment on my Facebook, blog or Twitter post of the article – places where I do try to respond to anyone who isn’t behaving like a troll.”

Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, who takes more flak from conservatives for his columns than I do for mine (Numbnutz v. Moonbeem), does not reply to reader comments at all for a couple of reasons.

“First, I have the privilege of writing the column in the first place and I think readers, if they’re so inclined, deserve the last word,” Bill explained. “Second, the quality of many (but not all) of the comments has degraded to the point where I find them neither informative nor entertaining. For the same reason, I find myself reading them less and less.”

Where online comments once represented a broad cross-section of readers, Bill said, they have now “devolved largely into an echo chamber for a relatively small group of people with way too much time on their hands.”

True enough. I’m at the point where I only have to see a screen name to know what a commenter will have to say. They probably think the same when they see my byline. A waste of time and effort.

So, for the time being, I will be trying to learn to let readers have the final word. No telling how long I can keep my big mouth shut. But for now, no comment.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.