Can we drop the fantasy about online “conversations?”

If you ever want to despair for humanity (leaving aside the usual war, famine, mass shootings, and environmental degradation), spend five minutes perusing the comments posted by some readers of, the internet platform for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. You’d be hard pressed to find a more depressing collection of ignorance, invective, and insult. It’s a Pandora’s box of ill-will, bordering on hatred, except that the lid has been left off and slime keeps oozing out like an overflowing cesspool.

I don’t mean to pick on the Inquirer and Daily News, nor on the good people of the Philadelphia region, of which I am one (E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!). Toxic reader comments are common on most online media outlets, not to mention Twitter and Facebook.  Media executives talk about enabling a “conversation” with and among readers. What gets posted, though, is in no way a conversation. It’s more like a drive-by shooting.

At least a few media entities are starting to address the problem, by either ending online comments entirely, or asking readers to submit more traditional letter-to-the-editors, which are curated and then posted–you know, like in the old days. Businesses and organizations that advertise online have a role to play. The dollars spent on online advertising are supporting an environment rife with trolls whose poison reflects negatively on the surrounding content. Just last week, Unilever threatened to pull its advertising from Facebook and Twitter unless these platforms addressed their “toxic” environment.

That’s a step in the right direction. Another would be for online media platforms to stop fooling themselves about online “conversations.” There is no such thing.

About Richard Wells

The Wellynn Group provides senior level counsel in marketing, communications, and public affairs. Hey, and we're nice people, too.
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