Cross: Mike Masnick, Digging Up Dirt On More Than Tech
Q. While people today know Mike Masnick, one of the most influential voices in tech policy, few may be aware that you were weaned on anarcho-syndicalism and Wobbly songs during your undergrad years at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Did you start out wanting to bring down capitalism? Were you pro-union or management? Would you rather strike or lock-out?
A. I’m not sure I honestly had any serious viewpoints on any of that when I started at Cornell ILR. I will say that I had just come off an intense reading of the infamous “Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, that a high school friend had given to me, saying “I need you to read this to stop you from becoming like a CIA spook or something” (a vibe I didn’t know I was apparently giving off at the time) and the book actually had a pretty intense influence on my view of things at the time, to the point that it was more “I’m not sure I trust any of what I’ve been told before, and I really ought to question lots of assumptions.” And then, my very first day at Cornell, my very first class, was labor economics, and the professor started off the class by using economics to convince us that cocaine should be legalized. And I thought “huh, this could be an interesting 4 years of challenging my assumptions.”
So I don’t think I’ve ever identified closely with any of the standard viewpoints along the political spectrum, and that included early on at Cornell.
When I first registered to vote in NY, they had a box on the card for party affiliation and it had three choices: Democrat, Republican or Independent. I didn’t even want to check Independent since even that had too much connotation in my head. So I didn’t check anything, and when I got back my voter card from the state it said: “Party Affiliation: BLANK” just like that in all capital letters. And I’ve kind of always kept that as my party affiliation. I’m a BLANK when it comes to that kind of stuff, and try to understand each issue within its actual context, rather than from a preconceived party line. So I never even really considered if I was on a particular side in the labor debate, and actually gravitated towards professors who argued the antiquated notion of it being labor against management was a concept worth replacing, and was interested in systems and models where incentives were aligned, rather than antagonistic. I’m a big fan of trying to find non-zero-sum game opportunities where you can “grow the pie” and increase overall opportunity. That’s why I’m attracted to tech and innovation, as it’s full of those things.
I will say, however, that having ILR on my resume almost cost me my first “real” summer job. I had been interviewing to be a “marketing intern” for a mail order catalog company (mainly computer stuff and lab safety equipment — I once got to model a hazmat suit and some specialty gloves for the catalog!) and the VP freaked out when he saw my resume, thinking I was there to organize the workers in the warehouse or something. But the rest of the marketing team liked me and convinced him to hire me — though the VP then never said a single word to me the entire summer. For what it’s worth, the only other job I had interviewed for that summer would have been working in the HR department at a large electric utility, and part of the interview process included them warning me that if I took that job, I might regularly have to stand up to union bosses who would likely physically and verbally threaten me. I was kind of glad I didn’t get that job.
Q. While historically, many ILRies went on to law school, you went the business route, continuing on to B-School at Cornell in 1997. Back then, AOL ruled the internet and Microsoft had just begun to make the internet available to any idiot who could point and click. Why not law? Were you fascinated by the new-born internet when you picked your poison? Where did you plan to put your talents to use going in, and did that change as tech developed during your years in Ithaca?
A. I went to ILR fully intending to go to law school. All through high school I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I really picked ILR because so many students from there do go on to law school. But, I was also (from the very beginning) intrigued by the fact that Cornell offered this “5 year program” which is that undergrads could apply to the business school in their junior year, and if they got in, their senior year of undergrad would actually become their first year of business school. They didn’t let too many students do that (just 3 my year), but for some insane reason I thought I needed to do that *and then* I would go to law school (not at Cornell). In my head, I thought it would make me a better lawyer if I also had an MBA.
I even bought a practice LSAT book at some point and did a few practice exams. And then, at some point during my first year of B-School I realized a few things: (1) I’d actually always been much more interested in tech and innovation than in law. (2) Business school was lots of fun and there were some pretty cool jobs for people graduating with an MBA and (3) Everyone I met who was in law school or had recently graduated law school was absolutely and totally *miserable.* And I said, maybe I should just go into the technology world instead. The fact that I now write so much about legal issues is some sort of karmic retribution for never actually going to law school. I did really enjoy my labor law classes though.
Q. The seeds of Techdirt were born from a newsletter you started in business school. What did you know about tech then? Did you have much to offer, or was the tech scene so nascent that you knew as much as anybody else who paid attention? Did you make an active decision that this was where you wanted to be, or did it just happen?
A. I’d been into tech stuff basically forever. My dad got us an Atari 800 in 1980 when I was 5 years old, and I grew up with that thing and thought technology was awesome. I got that from my Dad, I think (he’s an electrical engineer, and enjoyed gadgets and technology as well). In high school, I started reading Mondo 2000, which was like a bizarro world Wired magazine before Wired existed. And then, just as I was graduating high school, the very first issue of Wired Magazine was published. I still remember my friend Ari handing me the first copy in the parking lot of our high school, telling me that it was “the new thing” after Mondo (yeah, rather than drugs in the parking lot I was getting tech magazines — make of that what you will), and I quickly got a subscription and would devour the magazine cover to cover every month.
And, of course, the other amazing thing was once I got to Cornell, I got on the internet for the first time in the fall of 1993, and got sucked in immediately. I spent an awful lot of time exploring IRC and Usenet — including falling in with a crazy group of folks on Usenet who were all fans of the Illuminatus Trilogy (it all comes around!), including a bunch of folks who went to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and they started telling me about this neat thing they were working on called “Mosaic” which was the very first graphical browser software for this new concept known as “the World Wide Web.” So, one night, I dialed in with my 2400 baud modem and downloaded Mosaic overnight while I slept. And, from there I was hooked on the whole concept of the internet and how powerful it might be.
So, yeah, once I got to B-School and shook off the law school plan, I basically focused 100% on how the hell can I get a job in the startup world. I basically planned my entire curriculum around that idea: every class I took I wanted to somehow get me closer to being able to work in startups, technology and innovation.
And, as part of that, I did two things that still kind of surprise me today. First: I ran to be the President of the “High Tech Management Club” at the business school (clubs are *everything* in business school, because they’re cheap and easy resume fodder). I still have no idea how I won that election, because I was pretty shy and reserved (as one of only 3 students who hadn’t worked prior to going to business school I always felt woefully unqualified to be there, and kept waiting for all the other students and professors to ask me to leave).
Second: I thought that if I was going to get a job at a startup, I had to demonstrate some sort of special skills beyond just “I’m an annoying MBA guy” so I started writing a “newsletter” for the High Tech Management Club (there was no prior newsletter, it was just something I made up). And I tried to make it funny and entertaining. And I put a little note at the bottom saying “if you’d like to subscribe, send an email to…” and then I sent it off to the whole club, and apparently some of them liked it because they forwarded it to former colleagues and suddenly subscriptions started rolling in. I think I almost died when someone who worked at Netscape subscribed like two weeks in.
Finally, there were two professors at Cornell who I became incredibly close with and who really impacted my view of the world. The first was Alan McAdams, who had been an economist for President Nixon and a gov’t witness in the IBM antitrust trial in the 80s. And he taught a class on “management consulting.” He was sort of nutty (he’d wear a suit with sneakers that were untied) and the entirety of his “management consulting” class was basically trying to convince us that the world was about to go through a massive upheaval thanks to digital information and the internet. He’d constructed a “model” (and I think the only actual tie to “consulting” was that he wanted us to go out and “consult” using this model) which he called “The University Model” and it was all about the economics of open source software (before “open source” had even been coined, I think…), and how the way that people thought about innovation and information flow, and even scarcity itself, was about to drastically change.
And so you had this older, slightly nutty professor, ranting about “the university model” and “open source software” and how Bill Gates had no idea what was coming his way. And this was 1997 and everyone in the class thought he was crazy. And I think I did for the first month as well, and then he kept explaining the economics of what he was talking about and suddenly it fused back into all those Mondo 2000s and Wired Magazines and I realized he was saying the same thing in a different language — and I suddenly saw that, oh shit, Professor McAdams was *right* about where the world was heading, and no one believed him because he was slightly nutty and explained it to business school students who didn’t have the slightest clue what open source software was. But I started hanging out with Professor McAdams and a couple other students who were pretty into understanding this stuff too. I remember how Netscape announced its plans to go open source around that time and we had a huge discussion about it.
The other professor was Don Greenberg — who also has an interesting history. He’s been at Cornell forever (I think he’s still there), and basically invented the field of computer graphics in the 1960s. He was an architecture guy who saw the potential for computers in architecture and somehow was able to build his very own school within Cornell that was entirely focused on computer graphics. While I was in business school, he had just started teaching a class in the school about innovation. It was basically a class in disruptive innovation. In fact, while I was in that class, Clayton Christensen’s famous book on the Innovator’s Dilemma came out, and it basically tracked with the class itself. The class was about predicting technology trend lines. Each section (over the course of a few weeks) would take a look at two competing technologies and try to measure out the trend lines. So this was in 97 and we were debating cable broadband v. dsl v. fiber. And Linux v. Windows. And digital photography v. analog photography. I loved that class so much that I became the TA for it the next semester so I could basically run through it again. And it sort of primed me to understand just how disruptive technology can be to various industries.
Q. After graduating, manifest destiny took you to Silicon Valley, where you tried your hand at working for a living, first with Intel and then with a start-up. What happened? Why didn’t you go the obvious route and get some tech corner office and a massage? Certainly, going to work for some cool tech company would have been a more financially prudent course, yet you chose to take your own path? What were you thinking?
A. As mentioned earlier, once I realized I wasn’t going to law school the plan was always to go the startup route, however possible. The Intel thing was really just a stepping stone, though an interesting lesson in how that company achieves at an extremely high level. Amusingly, part of my job at Intel was figuring out ways to convince top marketing employees not to bolt for startups. Really. And then my startup experience was similarly instructive. I joined a “hot” startup right after it had raised $10 million from some of the biggest names in venture capital (at the time). And proceeded to watch the company do almost everything wrong. The board brought in a “seasoned” CEO who knew nothing about the business, but she’d once worked in a totally different sector and had helped a company through a “successful” IPO — so she insisted she could do that again for us. She then forced out the founders and the people who did understand the business and brought in some of her friends. Almost everyone whom I originally came to work with bailed out and I stuck around for a bit. Amusingly, even though I was still “new” because i was one of the few remaining “holdovers” from before, the new management quickly gave me a ton of responsibility because at least someone had to know what was going on. I don’t think they even knew I’d only been there about 4 months when they gave me a ridiculous amount of control.
But I finally decided to quit after I had lined up a MASSIVE deal to have our technology used by the US government, and after lining up everything, and briefing our VP of Engineering on all the details, he came into a meeting with some Defense Dept. officials and proceeded to clearly not understand our own technology. It actually reached the point where he was asking some Air Force guys to *explain our own technology* back to him, so he could better understand the deal. I quit the following week and decided that if I was going to go down with the ship on a startup, it should probably be my own damn startup.
And, of course, since I’d started Techdirt earlier at business school, I’d kept that going as a hobby on the side (partly to keep me sane). I dabbled with starting something entirely different (more or less a LinkedIn before LinkedIn), and then someone smacked me around and said “you have this website with thousands of followers, just go with that.” At the time, I thought the internet ad business was a dangerous one, so I wanted another business model, and we started a research and consulting business called Techdirt Corporate Intelligence, where we’d supply basically mini-Techdirts to companies focusing on any news relevant to them. I called up two people I knew in business school and explained the concept to them, and both said that their (fairly large) companies needed such a service immediately, and suddenly we were in business, with that service financing Techdirt itself as well. Many years later we finally put ads on Techdirt itself. And I’ve never looked back. So I did end up in a startup — though a different kind of startup. And we’ve continued to grow both sides of the business, building the following around Techdirt, and then building out other aspects to our business, including our main focus these days, which is a think tank called the Copia Institute that is working on a bunch of products to help the tech industry navigate the policy world more effectively.
Q. So Techdirt was born, and Mike Masnick was saying what others need to hear in language that was unmistakably clear. You had to realize that you were going to make some enemies, like Tom Sydnor of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, who said:
“I think Techdirt is demagoguery in the sense that a demagogue is somebody that tells only one side of the story, and exaggerates, and so I would largely say that Techdirt is demagoguery.”
Were you ready for the anger that was coming your way? Did it concern you that you would be called a demagogue? What did you do about it? Did you respond, care, laugh? Did it ever affect your writing or willingness to call someone out at Techdirt?
A I’m from NY, so I don’t mind people having opinions and being blunt. Tom was just angry because I’d exposed his bullshit smear job on Larry Lessig among a few other nutty statements (like the time he defended $150,000 awards for a single download of a song) and I knew how angry he could get (seriously, watching him get angry in person is kind of funny — it’s a DC tradition). So, yeah, Tom’s insults are pretty easy to laugh off. Of course, it’s probably worth mentioning two additional facts: (1) the day that article came out where Tom also said that no one in DC paid any attention to me (literally that very day), I had gotten a call from the White House asking for my thoughts on a policy proposal. So, Tom and others can say what they want. Reality doesn’t necessarily match Tom’s view of the world. (2) Notice that the Progress and Freedom Foundation doesn’t exist any more? It disappeared around that time. So…
At the same time, as a friend pointed out, the *original* definition of demagogue actually meant someone who is “championing the cause of the common people.” The meaning has changed over time, but originally it meant speaking out for the public’s rights, and to some extent that’s exactly what I try to do.
But, more generally, angry responses tend to be more amusing than anything else, as they’re so frequently based on faulty assumptions. If anything, I consider such responses a form of “batting practice” for when I have to deal with more professional disagreements with positions I’ve staked out. As for impacting my writing, I can’t recall any cases where it has. I will say that in recent months, though, I have started to consider (at least marginally) Mark Bennett’s Rule 1 in thinking about certain engagements.
Q. Not that you haven’t had some significant achievements at Techdirt, like your role in killing SOPA, but let’s be honest, the best thing you ever did was coin the phrase, the “Streisand Effect” in 2005. What are you going to do for an encore, or is it all downhill from there? Seriously, do you attribute the ubiquity of the Streisand Effect to your great influence or was it just one of those things? If nothing else, how does it feel to know that a phrase you coined is likely to live forever in infamy?
A. It was totally just “one of those things.” I’m still not even sure how it happened. When I coined it, Techdirt really wasn’t that big or well known, and I didn’t see it being used very widely for a while. It was maybe a couple of years later that it somehow popped up in Forbes, and then not long after that I got to go on NPR’s All Things Considered to talk about it. And from there it’s just grown and grown. I coined it, but had basically nothing to do with its life after that one throwaway line. The world is a strange place sometimes.
And, of course, now that the phrase has become much bigger than me, people who have known me a while are constantly amazed to find out I coined it. It’s the kind of phrase that no one ever thinks got “coined.”
At least Mike Godwin was smart enough to put his own name in the phrase he coined. 🙂
Q. Among the “causes” you champion at Techdirt, particularly open internet and net neutrality, you have taken a very strong free speech, anti-copyright position. Indeed, you’ve been pretty strident about your views that information wants to be free and should be. Why? Where did this come from? Is this a libertarian free-market thing, or is this a belief formed in the early days of the internet, when the only “law” was the wild west, and
A. As a correction, I don’t consider myself “anti-copyright.” I think today’s copyright system is totally broken and needs to be fixed. And I would say that no copyright system at all would almost certainly be better than today’s copyright, but that doesn’t mean that no copyright is the ideal either. I’m interested in exploring different and much more limited models of copyright — ones that take into account free speech, the public’s rights and innovation. I also don’t actually buy much into the “information wants to be free” line of argument either — and agree with Cory Doctorow that basically the only time you hear that line these days is when someone wants to insult people pushing for copyright reform. Stewart Brand’s full quote, from where “information wants to be free” comes, is a lot more interesting and nuanced:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
To me, it’s that “fight” that is so compelling and interesting. And starting from way back in the stuff I did with Prof. McAdams, I realized increasingly that when you could increase the power and value of the “free” information side of things, AND (importantly!) minimize the downsides to it, you could do amazing things for the world. That’s why I actually have spent a ton of time trying to highlight all different kinds of new business models and people who are successfully embracing those business models. Because I think it’s possible to actually create a world in which there’s wider overall benefit (access to information, the ability to create and share and learn and innovate) combined with those doing the work still being able to earn a living doing so. It’s that old non-zero-sum game, align the incentives thing all over again. It’s just that some people who have built careers around controlling the old way of doing things get fairly upset at a changing world where they’ll have less control. And so they spin fanciful stories like how it will destroy everything, when it’s usually just destroying the unfair advantage of a gatekeeper.
So I don’t think the idea formed from one or the other of “a free market thing” or “the wild west of the internet,” but rather a combination of both of those things. In short, one of the key takeaways I got from Prof. McAdams and his discussion of the University Model was that those two things weren’t in conflict. I know that many people in the “free culture” world also claim that they’re “against free markets” or something like that, but I don’t come from that line of thinking. I think the two things work together perfectly well. I’m a big free market supporter, while also embracing the value of free culture — and I try to show that those two things can thrive together.
Q. At some point, Techdirt began to shift and expand its content to include some serious and harsh criticism of law and law enforcement. What caused this expansion? Was it a natural outgrowth of the work you had been doing on tech? As you headed away from your tech wheelhouse, did you find the lack of a law degree or legal experience made it challenging to be sure that you understood what you were doing? Any chance you now wish you had done law school rather than business school?
A. I think it was a natural outgrowth in many ways, though often there are ties back into technology and innovation as well. For example, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the problems of civil asset forfeiture. But my interest in that area came about mainly after the Department of Homeland Security used that procedure to “seize” and then attempt to forfeit some hiphop blogs, claiming they were engaged in copyright infringement. That story (mainly about the blog Dajaz1) touched on a number of points that were always relevant to me: copyright and free speech — but then forced me to educate myself on civil asset forfeiture. Similarly, on issues of criticism of excessive law enforcement, some of that came out of the stories we’d had about people using their phones to film police. So there were direct tie-ins.
Also, lately, much of that kind of coverage is driven by our writer Tim Cushing who is much more focused on those issues than the rest of us. And since he’s passionate about it, we’ve let him explore that area on Techdirt.
I don’t think the lack of legal experience or a law degree has been that much of an issue for a few reasons. 1. I’ve always said that the blog is part of my way of learning things as I go. When I write something ill-informed and stupid, people inform me pretty quickly, and I learn for future posts. Some may find that to be a horrible concept — and I do try to get it right originally — but sometimes people make mistakes, and using them as education for the future seems like the best possible result. 2. In doing Techdirt over the years I’ve somehow attracted a fairly large group of lawyers who like to read the site and I’m able to reach out to many of them to bounce ideas off of them before writing certain pieces in areas where I’m not as familiar. And the amazing thing I’ve learned is that even lawyers with decades of experience in certain fields are confused by issues. As an example, in a recent story about a particular copyright lawsuit, I reached out to a bunch of lawyers trying to understand the details and it seemed like many of them were equally confused. I really had to talk it through with many different people, sometimes going back and forth between different lawyers before I felt I had a handle on the basics. And, of course, after that post went up, I heard from a few more lawyers as well, who had different takes on it.
So it’s possible that I didn’t understand the details because I didn’t have a legal background, or it’s possible that the law itself in this area is *insane* and no one has a really good grasp on it.
Q. One of the complaints about Techdirt is that it pulls no punches, and that you won’t hesitate to rip someone’s lungs out if you think they deserve it. I kinda know that feeling. Does it concern you that maybe Techdirt can
be a little too strident, a little too harsh in its attack? Have you ever come to regret having gone after someone? Was there ever a post where, in retrospect, you think that it was a mistake, whether because you were wrong
or just did more harm than was justified?
A. First of all, who do you know who’s complaining about Techdirt?!? But, more seriously, that’s a really good question. I will say, however, that I *try* to make sure that if I’m ripping apart something, it’s their ideas, statements or actions, rather than them as a person. We may not always succeed at that, but it’s something I strive for. As an example, when talking about a musician, I’m pretty careful not to, say, make fun of their music. Because something like that is a taste thing, and if lots of people like it, even if I don’t, well, that’s a cheap shot to make fun of that. But if they say something I think is dumb about copyright or the internet, well that’s fair game.
I’ve met some of the people that I’ve criticized and it can be an interesting experience. I once had the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company call me up and lecture me for an hour where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise (which was weird). A few years back someone actually engineered something of a surprise dinner between me and a well known author whom I’ve criticized repeatedly, and it was a pretty intense conversation, though it made me realize that much of what that guy wrote was to play the role of a character (i.e., he would raise a point from his book, and I would point out multiple examples of why his argument was wrong, and he’d immediately back down saying “well, you know more of the details about that than I do…” — and I kept thinking “but you’re the one who wrote the book!”). I once met a Congressional staffer whom I had written not very nice things about, and I recognized the name, but couldn’t place why I recognized it. And she told me that a committee she was on had been trying to call me to testify before Congress and “people” (never identified) had refused to give her my contact info (though I’m pretty easy to find). I gave her my card and only later realized who it was and how I’d basically gone sentence for sentence in attacking some comments she’d made (that, to be fair, were really dumb), and that the idea of having me testify was probably designed to make me look bad. But, whatever.
There are definitely stories I regret. Like almost everyone, there are times we’ve fallen for the “too good to be true” stories. I remember this story as an example: Recording Industry Helps Rapper/Single Mom Get A PhD, Though It Tried To Weasel Out. Though we quickly got tons of comments on it raising questions, leading to a much more thorough followup: That Story About Warner Music Paying For A Rappers’ PhD? Well… Not So Much. Of course, amusingly on that story, I made the “mistake” of reaching out to Warner Music to do some further fact checking, and I kept delaying publishing my updated story in order to get a quote from them, which they kept stalling on. It turned out the real reason for the delay was so they could feed the story to another “reporter” who used to work for the recording industry (and now works for the MPAA), so that he could write up a story mocking how Techdirt had been fooled. So that was fun. But, we try to be upfront and honest in admitting when we’ve made mistakes.
There was also the weird Lily Allen story a few years back. She’s a pretty famous singer (whose music I actually like) who said some silly things about copyright law, and then as part of a blog she set up to present her viewpoints, had copied a blog post of mine, word for word, without a link or attribution. I used it to point out the somewhat hypocritical nature of her position, and it led to some other revelations about her — including that while she was insisting that infringement was “not alright” she had been literally releasing “mix tapes” of other musicians’ work off of her EMI-owned website. I don’t think we were particularly mean to her ourselves, but it did point out a level of hypocrisy, and some others may have been mean following that. She deleted her blog and then announced she was no longer making music (she changed her mind sometime after that, of course). It led one music industry lawyer to claim that I had somehow commanded my “internet mob” to attack her and drive her out of the industry. And while I think there were probably some ugly comments made by some people, I thought all of our posts were quite fair and MOST of the commentary on her site and elsewhere that I saw seemed to be focused on reasoning to her why she was being hypocritical. But it’s not like I was trying to drive her out of the industry. So, I don’t regret those posts, but it did feel weird that some people then tried to blame me for having her quit making music (for the little while she did).
Separately, I know that the fact that we don’t pull any punches has certainly made life more difficult for us as a business. We’ve lost advertisers and advertising partners over stories. We had a really big ad partnership a few years ago that got yanked in large part over our SOPA coverage. Last year, right as we were about to launch our new think tank, the Copia Institute, we had been close to a sponsorship deal that got killed after the company pointed out we’d published an article ridiculing a company who was a very important client.
But I don’t regret that kind of thing at all. If we compromised our coverage in order to please advertisers or partners, then we’d compromise everything. It’s not worth it.
Q. One of the more curious things you’ve done is create a community of “anonymous cowards,” the name given to your Techdirt commenters who prefer to remain anon. Having read your comments, they can be pretty funny,
pretty nasty, and pretty batshit crazy. Do you ever worry that the commentariat has gone too far off the deep end, and they’re driving away more serious readers who don’t want to hang out with the anonymous cowards? You’ve added a feature about the “funniest/most insightful” comment of the week. While this may be a fun contest for your commenters, does this incentivize outrageous comments? Do you ever worry that this makes people stupider rather than illuminates, as your posts seek to do?
A. We copied the “anonymous coward” concept from Slashdot, whose software we originally used to power Techdirt. And it’s just stuck. And, honestly, on the whole I think our comments tend to be pretty great compared to comments on most sites. We do have all kinds of commenters, and many are incredibly thoughtful and knowledgeable. Some are indeed crazy. And there are a few trolls trying to stir things up. I have no idea if the crazier comments have driven away more serious readers — I doubt it would be a noticeable impact, honestly. If people are upset by the comments, they can still read the articles and ignore the comments. And, frankly, when the crazier comments do come up, it’s quite amazing to see much more intelligent and thoughtful responses point out where they’re off-base. I actually learn a ton from our comments as well, and they’ve absolutely made me a much better and more thoughtful commentator on the issues we cover. And the fact that you have some crazy comments mixed in seems unlikely to “make people stupider” when there are almost always other comments carefully picking through and rebutting the really crazy ones. I think some people think that stupid comments magically make other people stupid, whereas I’d like to believe that those comments, mixed with rational, careful responses, actually makes people much more thoughtful.
And, similar to the “batting practice” point I made earlier, crazy comments are a form of batting practice for engaging in more serious debates. You’d be amazed at how useful going 12 rounds with some trolls in the low pressure arena of a blog comments form comes in handy when you then have to confront the top copyright lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce in debate on a stage in Washington DC. Throw whatever you want at me, I’m ready for it.
Similarly, I’d argue that the “funniest” and “most insightful” awards and voting in our comments have actually incentivized better overall comments, as it doesn’t require being outrageous to win — just insight or humor. It certainly beats the typical “up/down” voting that many sites now employ. If people are going to comment on the site, we’d like them to either make us think or make us laugh. So we put some little nudges towards that. Does it always work? Of course not. But I think that our comments are a hell of a lot more interesting (and amusing) than tons of other sites out there. I don’t always have time to read all the comments, but I do read a lot of them and I get a ton out of it — often in reading how other commenters debunk the crazy ones.