Youth Media Flames

Youth Radio’s been inviting comments on our stories for some time, both through our own site and those of our outlets. Check out this especially heated comment stream ensuing from our July feature, Sex Without a Condom is the New Engagement Ring, which aired on NPR and then spread from there.

And even before the advent of the social media comment phenomenon, Youth Radio was used to handling the listener responses that have always come in the old fashioned, terrestrial radio way—through call-ins and emails, sometimes read on the air. But our redesigned site (launched a couple weeks ago) gives comments new visibility. So we need a policy for dealing with ones that are over-the-top hateful.

It’s an especially challenging question, I think, for youth media.

On the one hand, we tout the merits of media engagement as a crucial dimension of citizenship in today’s world. Comments are a way for young people who would otherwise be relegated to the position of consumers to help shape the conversation surrounding the media they care about. That’s the social justice argument. There’s also the more business-minded consideration. For any youth media initiative to gain traction, it’s got to enable audiences to participate in both making and judging the content. Youth media producers simply can’t get by anymore just pushing out completed work. Whether through online comments or other means, they need to ignite cultures of participation around the content they create.

On the other hand, the “positive youth development” orientation of our field makes it difficult–if not dangerous–to live with comments that are personally or socially hateful. The stakes are especially high for us, given that those comments will be permanently available both to the young producer who comes under attack and anyone else who happens upon the story. Especially tough to call are the comments that sit just on the edge–the ones that land in the “does this one cross the line?” category.

Our editorial team has considered various options. Boingboing came up with an intriguing strategy, which they describe in response to the hypothetical question:

Q. All the vowels have disappeared from a paragraph I wrote! What’s going on?

A. We did it. Someone (a moderator, one of the Boingers) was expressing displeasure at your remarks. The technique is called disemvowelling. It deprecates but does not delete the remark. With work, the disemvowelled text should still be readable.

Inspired by this concept of deprecation without deletion, we thought maybe we’d play off this idea and remove all or most of the comment’s consonants, thus rendering the flame “inconsonant.” Trouble is, inconsonant comments end up indecipherable, which defeats the purpose.

Our online editor, Kara Andrade, then came up with the idea to cut all references to “you.” Having spent several years of grad school studying linguistics and critical discourse analysis, I love this idea. There’s something incredibly disorienting and disarming about removing the pronoun of direct address, when the whole point of the comment is to express a hateful personal attack. Maybe a system of “you-removal” can diffuse and disperse the hate without shutting down the possibility that the digital community will engage with it in a meaningful and ultimately useful way.

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