This is the last al.COMMENTARY of the summer. Usually I just curate more stupid comments to advance the argument that Advance Publications ought to finally stop soiling its journalism with toxic talkback filth. This week I’m not.
(Trust me, aside from noting that after last week’s Tuscaloosa bar shooting, the al.commenters went back-and-forth from complaining about how people shouldn’t be up after midnight on a weeknight but also that al.com should have posted the story sooner than 4 a.m., humanity is better if I just left them all alone.)
Instead, after doing five XL-sized al.COMMENTARY columns this summer, here are seven lessons I learned along the way that should help elucidate why al.com’s managers should finally, finally clean up the slime at the feet of their reporters’ work.
1. These aren’t just normal stupid newspaper website commenters.
Sure, the talkbacks on newspaper websites will forever be the bastion of bitter middle-aged to old people with harshly constrained worldviews who want to shake a digital fist toward the sky. You’re always going to get the sweet old lady who think that the style of polos the kids are wearing in school is a sign of the devil and [insert "welfare society" rant here]. The same people who used to write dumb Letters to the Editor have computers now.
The al.commenters are not just those people.
Don’t believe me? Go back and read the columns I put together over the summer.
The first three end with a commenter calling for a lynching.
The fourth ends with a call for violence against a 14-year-old girl.
2. This really does make Alabama a worse place to live.
Someone asked me when I started doing al.COMMENTARY whether I thought that the al.commentariat was spoiled as a whole, or if it was just an outspoken minority. I lean toward the minority argument — at most, I think this is the same, limited group of harsh, racist, classist scumbags posting over and over again and then finding a way to start anew when one of their anonymous accounts gets banned.
The problem is that things have long been so bad that all that pretty much the entirety of the conversation going on at al.com these days are the nutjobs and the bored liberal trolls who challenge them on stupid things.
By default, al.com is where you go to find out what is going on in Alabama. It is the place where the state’s biggest news organization pools its content. Much of the scroll-down area on the story pages are comments. So, in old media terms, al.com having such slimy talkbacks is equatable to the bottom of portion of each day’s Birmingham News having a big banner saying “LET’S KILL ALL THE BLACKS!” over three-quarters of the front page.
(And to be fair, The Birmingham News practiced journalistic negligence and moral bankruptcy by just ignoring the civil rights movement, if memory serves correct.)
The problem with this is two-fold. First, whether you admit it or not, your views of the world are confirmed by what you see. Seeing that kind of shit dripping from actual news every day has to have some sort of residual effect on Alabamians ability to progress.
And to be clear, by “progress” I don’t mean a) happy government handout for everybody or b) you have to gay marry a half-German Asian-Mexican transgendered person.
I mean “progress” in the sense that perhaps Alabama could become a place where it is not so reasonable for some anonymous idiot to call for minorities to be lynched on a newspaper website.
You know. That.
The other problem is that it makes Alabama a less inviting place to live, which isn’t good for the economy and it isn’t good for bringing in the talent that fuels it.
Now, unless you’re Larry Langford and you’re going to shout at me for suggesting reality,¹then you probably realize that, for the love of God, does Alabama need some more intellectual capital. You need those people to draw in businesses.
This is not the only thing stacked on the camel’s back in these situations, but I know several people who say they look at the al.comments and think, “I could never live there.”
Some of them are Alabama expats. Some of them are out-of-staters intrigued by the prospects. Some of them are people already here trying to figure out whether they want to stick around in Alabama.
Now, is it fair to pin the economic and social future of the state on al.com allowing a bunch of anonymous shitheads post up a bunch of crazed, offensive stuff on the internet?
Hell no. Alabama has been digging its hole for generations. All the al.commenters do is announce that there are some pretty scary trolls down at the very bottom.
But does that excuse al.com from making this state look like a much shittier place than it probably is because its web developers are apparently the only ones yet to figure out that outsourcing their comment system to Facebook or a similar service makes things infinitely more civil and manageable?
3. About 90 percent of the problem would be fixed by adding Facebook’s comment system or something like that.
Every third hillbilly in Alabama has finally made the transition from what’s left of MySpace to Facebook. Some of the biggest online publications’ bustling talkback communities are fueled by Facebook comments. What’s the problem here?
Seriously, do you think the guy who named himself after black-on-black violence would be doing half of his bullcrap if he had to give his real name? And if you want crazy hillbillies saying racist things to stir things up, there will always be some dumbass who posts something stupid, reputation be damned. It just won’t be every other post anymore.
I mean, have you been to this state?
Get football involved and someone will send out a press release as he pees on his cousins on his front lawn.
And that’s just over recruiting.
4. Read enough comments and stories and you get the sneaking suspicion that Advance is happy to encourage or turn a blind eye to the more despicable, racist commenters because they stir up traffic.
It’s not like the al.com crew knows how to design or run a functional news website or anything.
And sure, this might seem like a fine business plan to some of you.
Of course, I’m sure you could make money off deliberately selling dirty needles.
You could that, but it’s not very smart or sustainable.
And I certainly wouldn’t ever want to deal with you as a human being ever again.
5. This has jack crap to do with the First Amendment.
First of all, al.com is a private entity. They don’t have to allow any viewpoint they do not like on their website, and they already don’t allow viewpoints they don’t approve of — just to be clear if you are constitutionally uninclined.
Second, if you’re putting faith in a corporation to live up to an ideal, you might want to pick one other than Advance. This is the company that, with a straight face, has continued to pledge itself to living up to supposedly high journalistic ideals and providing round-the-clock information while also eliminating the vast majority of journalism jobs at its publications. QED.
Finally, if Advance were so dedicated to using its forums as a means of honoring diverse viewpoints, al.com’s own longstanding version of al.COMMENTARY wouldn’t be perhaps the most intellectually bankrupt feature on its site.
If you really wanted to show off the diversity of opinions your commenters are sharing about the school board, why not share KillAllBlackz82′s thoughts about why it’s “alls the monkees fault!111!!!!”?
6. This has jack crap to do with openly discussing issues of race in Alabama.
There’s an appreciable difference between discussing the divides — political and social — among races and screaming that white people are just jealous of black people’s penis size and shouting for all the blacks in Birmingham to be exterminated because you don’t like “thugs.”
7. It’s not going to change until Advance can afford to or has to make it change.
Or in other words: This is only going to get worse before it gets better.
Advance is going from its strength to its weakness by switching to a web focus. Until its managers can convince themselves that parting with that redneck rubbernecking traffic is worth it, the filth will likely still be there.
And I’m not sure there’s a place with water hard or hot enough for this state to wash it off.
¹”Let’s do something!”
Reran Tragedy is Weld’s satirical blog about politics and life in Alabama and the South. You can like this blog on Facebook and follow it on Twitter @ReranTragedy. You can reach the blog’s author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The artist known as Cal Alabaster Jr., if that is his or her real name, may or may not also be the author of the Alabama humor blog called “King Cockfight.” If true, you may read Cal’s work there at kingcockfight.wordpress.com