Some ruminations herewith on sfgate.com, which is not precisely the website for the San Francisco Chronicle, or is it? There’s another website explicitly for the Chronicle, which, now that I look at it, seems to be more serious in tone than sfgate.com, which goes directly for the lowest common denominator: plenty of true crime, cruelty to animals, Courtney Love claims to have found missing plane, etc.
To get an idea of how far it has sunk, try to picture the same content at the website for The New York Times. You can’t. However, sfgate.com is the best source for certain kinds of local news, as well as breaking news, so I visit frequently and comment on articles fairly often. The editors there well know what topics inflame readers and lead to hundreds of comments: outrageous rents, lifestyles of the affluent, Google buses and techies, off-leash dogs, people riding bicycles. The comments on some articles can be very funny, occasionally charming: “How and why this confuses people is mind bottling.”
Several months ago, they rolled out a new comments tool that is terrible, for a few reasons—aesthetically displeasing, sometimes not responsive to clicks, makes you click a “more” link to see the end of longer comments—but most particularly because there is no “Dislike” button, which immediately led to many complaints, but has not yet been rectified and may never be.
It appears there is a direct correlation between the presence of a “Dislike” button and the overall tenor of the comments. Comments now are much more likely to be hateful, displaying values you would think people would be embarrassed to reveal, even under fake names. Articles about income inequality now result in comment after comment advising that those who can’t afford to live here should just leave, for instance, and the level of explicit vitriol has gone way up. When Safeway installed a piece of metal atop all its low walls to prevent homeless people from sitting down, this received near-universal approbation: Why do we have to have homeless people? Why do they have to sit down? Can’t they just stand up all the time?
Also, come to think of it, why do we have to have teachers, waiters, line cooks, artists, dancers, musicians, police officers, firefighters, janitors, gardeners, child care workers, handypersons, writers or medical personnel? Who cares if those people can’t live here?
Well, for starters, when the big one hits and you’re lying under several stories’ worth of rubble, do you really want to wait for help to arrive from Antioch? Are you positive you yourself, or your elderly parent, won’t ever fall down in the Safeway parking lot and need a place to sit other than the grease-dappled ground?
The lack of charity is stunning, and I’ve even seen it in myself, posting comments that depart from the civil tone I had formerly cultivated. Because there is no “Dislike” button! Before, if I saw a comment that seemed lacking in compassion or with which I didn’t agree, I simply clicked that button and experienced a warm glow of satisfaction: “I guess I told him!” But now it’s incumbent upon me to post something—lacking in compassion—to tell that person exactly why he or she is a selfish, clueless moron, and I assume the same mechanism is working in others.
It’s rather horrible at sfgate.com these days. I keep resolving not to look at the comments at all, and certainly not to comment myself, and one day this will take hold. I read recently yet another comment asking why people should remain here who really can’t afford it, and I felt like weeping. I’d love to avoid the entire website, but, as I say, certain kinds of local news are not to be had elsewhere.
This post was going to end here, but since I wrote it, I’ve started to make a heroic (if I may say so myself) effort to literally do all day what I do in formal practice, which is to notice my body and notice my mind. More on this later, but it’s already for the most part restored my civil commenting tone.