An Open Letter to Haaretz: Kindly Close Your Talkback Section

Because of the unique natures of the restroom and the Internet, the visitor does not encounter the other visitors.

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To the editors of Haaretz,

Dear vegan-leftist-feminist comrades,

We are writing to you today to recommend a radical, disruptive, outside-the-box, innovative step: Let our articles end where we ended them. In other words: Don’t let the readers comment. Do them a favor and just let them read.

Some might say it is a radical step. They haven’t read the online comment section.

The Haaretz Group tends to lead innovative moves in the press. It was the first in Israel to offer a chain of local papers, and recently the first to implement a paywall. It is interesting, then, to note that Haaretz was dragged into the comments experiment.

It was late October 2004. The head of Haaretz’s Internet department at the time was Elihay Vidal. He told nrg correspondent Ido Kenan, “We hope we will contribute to enriching the public discussion in Israel on matters of politics, society, the economy and technology, culture, science, environment and foreign affairs.”

Well, we tried. It didn’t happen. We now recommend that Haaretz once again spearhead the charge − but in the right direction this time.

Dear editors, you know how folksy we are and how berefet of arrogance, so you won’t be hearing all kinds of explanations from us as to why, of all people, it’s Israelis who respond with such vulgar and jugular-vein-popping pugnacity. Suffice it to say we do not know of any media outlet outside of Israel − including the worst tabloids − in which the comments are quite as homogenous in the venom and hostility they give off.

To find an equivalent to the local community of online comment-posters, you have to go as far as YouTube − a website that has been considered, by those who can’t read Hebrew, to be the very lowest cesspool in the comments game. But what do you know? Even there winds of change are blowing: The people owning YouTube at Google announced two weeks ago that the site is completely revamping the mechanics of its commenting system to make it easier for uploaders to get rid of rude and offensive commenters. Other sites are joining this counter-wave, among them two other gigantic cesspools: IGN and GameSpot.

But we suggest Haaretz consider not the YouTube or IGN model, but rather that of Popular Science, which has just closed all its articles to comments.

“Comments can be bad for science,” announced the veteran periodical, which cited as evidence results of a fascinating study done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Violent and negative comments tend to skew a reader’s opinion and generate disagreement where there should be none.

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” wrote Suzanne LaBarre, Popular Science’s online content director. “Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again.”

Enemies in the restroom

To understand what is happening in the online-comments arena, you need to recall the “tragedy of the commons” − a term coined in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin, which can be easily explained by means of the gas-station restroom. There, just like on a website, a visitor can, relatively easily, leave behind him a pleasant and clean environment for subsequent visitors. But the fact is, he doesn’t. Why? Because he has no incentive: He does not feel that this place is his home ‏(witness the fact that his home does not smell of urine‏).

Because of the unique natures of the restroom and the Internet, the visitor does not encounter the other visitors. The visitors are known to each other not by their faces, but rather only by the things they leave behind: a moist clump of toilet paper in the sink; an inarticulate and bitter comment at the bottom of the article. Each visitor who leaves some odiferous testimony behind reduces the chance that a subsequent visitor will feel comfortable, or that he will have an incentive to touch the handle that flushes the toilet.

This is a downward spiral that gets suspended, if only partially, by the arrival of the cleaner once an hour on the hour ‏(if you believe that attendance sheet posted on the door, anyway‏).

But the online-comments cleaner has a far harder job than his brother at the gas station: Get rid only of the most excremental clumps, we tell him. Don’t touch the rest! It is the marker of a free debate and there are people who think this is the best thing about us! They come in not to use the restroom, merely to catch a whiff of the fragrance! If the floor happens to be clean or there is a lemony scent, they will know we are fascists!

But if cleanliness is fascism, our position is that serious consideration should be given to changing the system of government. ‏(Moreover, we believe the editor of Haaretz will look sexy as he strides through the newsroom escorted by two dozen fasces-wielding lictors.‏)

What cleanliness enables is that which filth prevents: the feeling, if only the falsest, of domesticity. A newspaper defines a community of readers, and it seems that Haaretz, more than any other Hebrew paper, appeals to a discrete and defined public. Something else sets Haaretz apart, and that is the degree of hatred that another discrete and defined public feels for it. There is no need for us to expand on the reasons for this, because those will appear in great detail in the comments to the online version of this article.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a hardhanded policy, the interactive capabilities of the Web give preference to those Haaretz haters and silences its readers.

It is an unusual and fascinating distortion. One turns to read one’s newspaper, but instead of being congratulated on his choice of reading material, he hears that he and his likes are weak, back-stabbing leftists ‏(lol‏); that the columnists he tends to agree with are a femi-nazi bitch who can’t get any except for bribes ‏(lolol‏); and that the pieces he finds interesting are shallow mush and at the same time an over-long, tedious waste of his time.

A depressing executive summary, in closing


In the restroom and on the Internet, the visitor does not encounter other visitors.Credit: Reuters

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