Sticks & Stones

I couldn’t attend, as I left work Friday afternoon to drive to Kentucky for a wedding, but it looks as though yesterday’s Sticks & Stones art happening in downtown Ypsi went really well. Here, with a recap, is a short interview with Nick and Yen Azzaro of Chin Azzaro Studio about the event, which was intended to facilitate conversation about the nature and effects of anonymous online commentary directed at our community and its citizens.

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MARK: What was the impetus behind the event? I mean, I understand what it was about in a larger sense, but I’m curious as to whether or not there was one online comment in particular that started you thinking, “We really should have a community event to discuss the destructive nature of online, anonymous comments.”

NICK: I first started working with Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) in 2013 through Bright Futures, and I’ve continued since then to as a YCS employee. Since being hired in November of 2015, I’ve taken 83,734 photos of the wonderful things the students are up to (12,475 can be seen here). These negative online comments are the opposite of what I see. And, although the students might not read these comments, they exist and perpetuate the pre-judgement of an entire community. We chose to work with comments because they’re tangible forms of hate.

MARK: Before we get into too much detail about yesterday’s event, let’s talk for a minute about MLive, which seems to be where most of these anonymous comments about Ypsilanti originate…

NICK: The comments we used during the event are all from MLive articles. While negative comments do exist on other platforms, we wanted to keep this as controlled as possible. So, like a scientific experiment, we limited the variables. Not only were the comments solely from MLive, but they were only from stories about Ypsilanti. And let me be clear, this is not an attack on MLive. I appreciate the hard work of their staff and freelance writers, and know they babysit many of these commenters as well.

MARK: How long have you been reading the comments on the site, and, over that time, have you noticed any change? I’m just curious as to whether you have a sense as to how things may be evolving.

NICK: I’ve been paying attention to online comments from many different online news providers for the last eight or so years and collecting MLive’s for just over a year now. The only change I’ve seen has been the screen names, but they may still be the same people. The comments have been consistently awful. However, as the election draws nearer there have been a few more politically motivated comments.

MARK: I don’t have facts to back it up, but my sense is that things are getting worse… that Trump and others of his ilk have opened the door to a very dark place, giving people permission to articulate things that, in the past, they would have likely been too ashamed to have said, even behind the mask of anonymity.

YEN: Yes, I think his campaign has normalized a lot of bigoted speech, inciting actions and violence that a person may not commit on their own accord. That said, our internet culture also allows for hateful speech with little consequence. I remember when we first got dial-up at home in the ‘90s and my sister would go into chat rooms and just talk jibberish to people and they’d get pissed. We would be laughing so hard we’d be crying because they were trying to make friends, or hook up with someone, and here was this middle schooler pissing people off because she had nothing else to do. That, to me, sums up a lot of what we see from these commenters now.

NICK: Unfortunately people have been leaving some pretty awful comments for as long as I’ve been paying attention. Trump supporters may feel more validated, but they were vocal back when Trump’s biggest achievement was Gary Busey.

MARK: As I also have a blog with a comments section, I’ve given some thought to this… as to how online cultures evolve, and why it is that, for the most part, the comments on my site stay respectful, whereas, on MLive, they often veer into uglier territory. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that MLive has a bigger audience, and people get more of a thrill yelling bullshit in front of a larger audience. Or maybe there’s more to it. In the time that I’ve had my site, though, which is about 12 years now, I believe I’ve only had to delete three comments for crossing the line. And I’m not sure why that is, as I also allow for anonymous comments.

YEN: I could safely assume your readers are more intentional about coming to the site to read meaningful, community-driven content. Whereas big media like MLive is the everyman’s news, like the big box store vs the specialty boutique.

NICK: People read your blog to be informed by someone they trust. People read MLive just to comment (or at least the commenters I’m following). For example, since Friday, August 5th, at 1:07 PM (when our article went live) we’ve received 181 comments and counting. Just about 100 of them were made by four people, at all times of the day. It’s really fascinating! They’ve even researched Yen and I and referenced past MLive articles, our personal social media pages and more. I bet they’ve even lost sleep over this!

MARK: Is there anything, in your opinion, that MLive could do to address this issue? For instance, would you advocate a change in policy concerning the acceptance of anonymous comments?

YEN: I would advocate to change the policy on anonymous commenting, but I wouldn’t hold my breath to see it happen. I’m somewhat ok with the way it is now. But we should recognize that giving some of these individuals the “power of the (digital) press” contributes to the cesspool of crap we have to muddle through sometimes to get to the good, helpful stuff. To me, it’s kind of like meeting someone in person. Some people are just assholes regardless of whether it’s online or real life, they’re not afraid to show it.

NICK: Some have argued this is their 1st Amendment right and I don’t disagree with that. However, when it’s hate filled, cyber bullying there’s a difference. I lean toward ending the comment section altogether.

MARK: It’s funny. I remember discussing the comments on MLive back when they first started, in 2009… wondering how it would play out. At the time, Content Director Tony Dearing was promising “aggressive moderation,” saying that he’d establish an online community where substantive, respectful discussions could be had. He side he wanted to create an online “grown-ups table”. I’m wondering where things went wrong.

YEN: I’m sure it wasn’t getting enough clicks.

MARK: So you think there’s a business reason behind it… that they’re allowing these things to be said in order to drive clicks, resulting in higher dollar ad sales?

NICK: We can’t say for sure, but commentor Rufus T Firefly says: “MLive relies on all our commenting for advertising impressions. They don’t really care much what we write in our comments as long as we keep writing our comments. Have you noticed the ‘Community Talk’ page is gone?”

Rufus also says a lot of other things.

MARK: As for eliminating anonymous comments, I think it could have unintended consequences. For instance, I know that several people with positions within the City of Ypsilanti leave comments on my site that they couldn’t if their identities were known. I also know that people comment from work, when they probably shouldn’t be doing so. I just think there are a lot of reasons why someone might want to remain anonymous, other than just to engage in hate speech.

NICK: I understand. On one hand we can say “This is why we can’t have nice things”, and on the other this is a legitimate tool for reporting news. I’m for either eliminating the comments altogether or having someone screen them before publishing them. Or we change the minds of those leaving negative comments…

MARK: So, during the event itself, you had several people standing silently in the street, holding comments that were left by anonymous MLive readers. How did you select the comments?

NICK: I’ve collected around one hundred comments that serve absolutely no purpose other than promoting hate, racism and/or classism. We chose 31 from that and printed them.

MARK: Can you give us an example of a few of the comments that you selected?

NICK: “Did not notice any “Black Lives Matter” signs or any protests of the stupid, senseless killing that goes on in Black communities every week. Where are you? Your community needs you, not me.” -Speedy Squirrel

“News flash…. Ypsilanti Community Schools is just as contaminated and costly as Waterstreet… rediculous.” -NM156

“If the ones doing the protesting and shooting would put that effort to work to help clean up their own neighborhoods and go to work ,maybe most of these problems could be stopped.” -oldtimer67

“Every family should have the pleasure of being photographed in orange suits….” -greengreg

A bigger benefit would be if certain “communities” would quit committing so much crime.” -@HILLARY11

“Anybody want to guess what the mug shots look like…” -gpalms1

“Wonder if the orange tips/extensions on perps dreadlocks are designed to match the orange jump suit? Just saying…” -Michigan Man

MARK: Interestingly, MLive covered the event. How’d they do in your opinion, and what were the subsequent comments like?

YEN: I think Tom Perkins did a great job. He was interested in the concept fairly early on, but there was discussion and clarification needed from MLive to run the story. Currently, there are 181 comments following the article and it’s a mixed bag of support and more trolling, no different than any other article. Some are thoughtful, even if I don’t agree with them, and others are downright nasty. Again.

NICK: In the last ten minutes, Ridge (a commenter) wrote this about Friday’s show: “I saw the photos and it reminded me of a slave auction. A bunch of silenced people holding signs about their defects.” Some real critical thinkers they are! If an employer saw this comment on the Facebook page of an employee, they’d either be reprimanded or fired.

MARK: I like the idea that someone reading the MLive coverage might see his or her own comment being held by someone in downtown Ypsilanti.

YEN: We did too, but no one outed themselves. After the event, one of them said that if this were to happen again, they would like to hold their own comment. That to us, was a win.

MARK: I suppose it would have been too much to ask that someone would look at a photo of a person holding their comment and have a change of heart. How beautiful would it have been, though, if someone read about this event and thought to themselves, “OK, these are real people that I’m lashing out at, and I need to keep that in mind”?

NICK: Man, that would have been great! That’s why we did this, to show there are people at the end of every comment.

MARK: What kind of response were you getting from people who just happened to be passing by, and encountered all of these Ypsilantians silently holding signs about how terrible this community of theirs is… in the opinion of anonymous MLive readers?

YEN: We passed out small flyers that explained the project and how they could participate (by hashtagging #sticksandstones online with content). Most people were appreciative and took the time to read the posters. Just about everyone took photos or video footage. A couple people were floored that these were actual comments made about Ypsilanti. They just couldn’t believe their eyes.

MARK: Did anything happen that you didn’t anticipate?

YEN: People cried. I’ve been looking at these comments for so long, they started to become silly taglines in my head. One person texted me afterward about how emotional the piece made her, and three viewers came up to me with tears in their eyes. Nick said he witnessed the same thing from the participants in the piece. The posters had a cumulative effect I hadn’t considered when I was designing them.

MARK: In summing up the event online, you said, “We create the news, they just consume it.” What did you mean by that?

YEN: All of us consume things — social media, TV, movies, books, advertising. Nick and I have always had this unspoken understanding that we were going to produce things. He works with kids and is developing a model to train students into professional photographers. I’m working on a longterm plan to add an arts organization in this area that sustains museum-quality exhibits at a fraction of the cost. When we see a gap or have an idea, we try to carry it out, create something.

The commenters are reactionary. They listened to the radio interview, then they read the article and they still ripped on us. They cited their 1st amendment right and their right to an opinion, which we agree with wholeheartedly. But making a nasty, bigoted comment never got anyone a gold star or a high five during class, so why do you think that works in the real world? We’re creating a positive outlet and bringing people together while they sit around and wait to see what they can hate on. No matter how many negative comments come after this or any article about our work, we got the last word.

[The following were taken by Nick Azzaro, Hollie Pietsch and Alison D’Amico Nix.]

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26 Comments

  1. EOS
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    The comments on MLive are some of the worst I’ve seen on the Internet. I think the reason may be because of the aggressive moderation of the website. They eliminate many comments within a few minutes based only on POV. I’ve often watched the progression of anger when commenters are denied the ability to express an opinion that is civil and logical.

    There are at least two POV on every issue. The other side is not often demonic or bigoted or hateful. To think that no one should be allowed to criticize a community like Ypsilanti is the real danger. That there are individuals who think a person should be denied employment for expressing opinions that they disagree with is something that should cause greater outrage. As a whole, Progressives are the most intolerant group I have ever encountered.

  2. site admin
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Also of possible interest to people, this post from June 21, 2009:

    A few weeks ago, in a post about the soon-to-be-launched AnnArbor.com site, I suggested that perhaps Tony Dearing, their Director of Content, was a bit naïve when he said publicly that they would be able to control the conversation taking place in the comments section by employing “aggressive moderation.” Well, it looks like Dearing has responded on the A2.com placeholder site. Here’s some of what he had to say:

    …Our Web advisory panel met for the first time this morning in a community room at the Ann Arbor Public Library to see how our site is developing so far, to ask questions and give us input. We listed the names of our advisory group in an earlier post.

    They urged us to take a strong hand in moderating conversation on AnnArbor.com right from launch. One warned us that the failure to do so could allow our site to degenerate into a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

    To avoid that, we should have norms for conversation on the site, clearly enforce those norms, and be transparent about what we’re doing.

    That’s interesting, because I talked about our plan to moderate “aggressively” in an earlier post, and that intention was immediately challenged by blogger Mark Maynard. In the spirit of viewer discretion, I should mention that if you follow the link to Maynard’s blog, the comment thread includes an impressive array of vulgarities. Even Maynard was moved to joke that “On second thought, maybe aggressive moderation is a good thing”…

    Before I go any further, I’d like to reiterate that I want AnnArbor.com to be wildly successful. I think that our region needs serious journalism, and I hope, with the loss of the Ann Arbor News, this new entity, AnnArbor.com, might step into the void and fill that role. (Blogs aren’t journalism, and shouldn’t be seen as such.) My only point in that initial post was to suggest that cultivating a healthy and active online community isn’t as easy as Dearing makes it sound… If you want to foster a real community dialogue, in my opinion, people have to know that they’re being heard, and that, it seems to me, runs counter to aggressive moderation.

    READ MORE: http://markmaynard.com/2009/06/markmaynardcom-a-wretched-hive-of-scum-and-villainy/

  3. anonymous
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Didn’t you propose once that we build a computer program that would automatically respond to negative comments about Ypsilanti left on MLive?

  4. Jcp2
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    What First Amendment rights exist for online commenting? Most of the places where you can leave a comment are privately owned. MLive is not “aggressively moderated”. Click rates and dwell time is what they sell to advertisers. Real online communities that are true communities rather than a virtual bathroom stall graffiti wall are moderated extensively.

  5. site admin
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    See also:

    “The Ann Arbor News Does Not Speak For Ypsilanti, a rant from the sickbed of Mark Maynard”

    http://markmaynard.com/2015/09/bedridden-and-angry-in-ypsilanti/

  6. Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Just a couple thoughts — I think there’s an obvious difference between having an opposing point of view/criticism of our city and being a bigoted ass engaging in the easy, consequence-free practice of online hate-speech. I also think there’s a connection here to the recent NO campaign against the Water Street Millage. It’s far easier to simply “Just Say No,” condemn every plan, and charge malfeasance, corruption, or incompetence, than it is to do the hard work of showing up, doing the work, and creating a way forward. Far easier. I agree with Yen that being a producer, a creator is how I want to be in the world, not just a reactionary.

    FWIW, I thought this article really delved into the thinking of an online troll:
    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/02/what-happened-confronted-cruellest-troll-lindy-west

  7. site admin
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    See also:

    “A message to the poor of Michigan…. You don’t deserve to live in Ann Arbor, that’s what Ypsilanti is for”

    http://markmaynard.com/2014/09/a-message-to-the-poor-of-michigan-you-dont-deserve-to-live-in-ann-arbor-thats-what-ypsilanti-is-for/

  8. site admin
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    See also:

    “What do people really think of Ypsilanti, how might those opinions be reinforced by Ann Arbor media, and what can we do about it?”

    http://markmaynard.com/2011/05/what-do-people-really-think-of-ypsilanti-and-how-are-those-opinions-reinforced-by-ann-arbor-media/

  9. Kit
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    You missed this one, Site Admin.

    A “terrible blow to journalism, ” MLive cuts 29 jobs at a time when Michigan desperately needs quality reporting

    http://markmaynard.com/2016/01/a-terrible-blow-to-journalism-mlive-cuts-29-jobs-at-a-time-when-michigan-desperately-needs-quality-reporting/

    I think the quality of the comments follows the quality of the reporting.

  10. Lynne
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I know that I stopped reading and commenting on Mlive after they deleted a comment of mine which was critical of them shaming Ypsilanti mentally ill for click bait while they almost always would leave in anything racist or classist, especially if it pertained to Ypsilanti. But if you were to suggest to them that *maybe* treating someone with a mental illness with kindness instead of parading a Ypsilanti hoarder house around for their readers to make horrible comments about, my comment was deleted. Appeals to the author Paula Garnder were completely dismissed. I believe I was accused of “piling on”

    As a news organization, they suck. They do more harm than good and the sooner they go out of business the better.

  11. General Demitrious
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I remember when I was little, I did not know we were poor until somebody told me we were. How I felt about that had a lot more to do with my parents than it did with actually hearing it in the first place. You give your kids their inner compass, the one that guides them to see their strength, and their value.

  12. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    The benefits of anonymous speech far outweigh the potential harms–especially in a community like Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti.

  13. Dan
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like this Nick guy is a tad obsessed with some of the commenters.

    And like EOS was saying it’s pretty weird that he is hoping someone loses a job over posting a meaningless comment that was not directed at any body.

    There are a lot of things in Ypsi that need to be improved and ignoring them isn’t helping any more than people trolling with dumb comments. Trying to sugarcoat everything is just as harmful or even more harmful.

  14. kjc
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    as Dan and FF illustrate so reliably, dumb comments can be just that.

    “The benefits of anonymous speech far outweigh the potential harms–especially in a community like Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti.”

    lol. this comment is so effin’ stupid! please wear it on a sign and walk around.

    “There are a lot of things in Ypsi that need to be improved and ignoring them isn’t helping any more than people trolling with dumb comments.”

    says dumb troll. how dare people make art and ignore problems!

  15. Dan
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    everyone hates you, kjc, it’s not just me and FF.

  16. EOS
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    kjc – You are the one trolling and making personal attacks. Dan and FF contributed to the discussion. It would be more helpful if you wrote a coherent post about why you disagree with the statements and shared your thought process. Please tell us why you don’t think that useful information is sometimes posted anonymously. Explain why people shouldn’t feel comfortable making criticisms of their community, however valid they might be. Do you think your opinion of Dan and FF will stop them from expressing their ideas in the future? What is it that you hope to accomplish with your post? How are you contributing to the sharing of ideas? Do you really think that only people who share your views should post?

  17. wobblie
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Eos, you are one confused person. In your first post you state, “As a whole, Progressives are the most intolerant group I have ever encountered.” A rather broad generalization wouldn’t you say, after all you defend the “right” to discriminate against LGBT community. Then in your last post you ask, ” Do you really think that only people who share your views should post?” Discrimination is discrimination. Given your positions on same sex marriage, and gays in general what is your problem with kjc?

    Eos you state,”That there are individuals who think a person should be denied employment for expressing opinions that they disagree with is something that should cause greater outrage. ” Ever hear of the Hatch Act? Federal employees, or employees of other entities who are paid through Federal dollars are expressly forbidden forms of “free speech” that you and I and mult-national corporations have. A violation of the Hatch Act will get you fired. It is the way we ensure that our civil “servants” remain non-partisan.

  18. Demetrius
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Ypsilanti has lots of great things going for it, but also lots of problems. Legitimate criticism and/or differences of opinion should be accepted, even welcomed – but as the “Sticks and Stones” event points out, the MLive comments section is often a sewer of toxic, hateful, ignorance.

    Some comments could actually be funny if they weren’t so stupid and offensive. I particularly like the people who see anything associated with Ypsi (or the Township) as dark, dangerous, and best avoided at all cost. Whenever I read these, I picture someone who probably lives in the western part of the county and hasn’t actually been east of Carpenter Road in years … but is likewise just basing their ignorant BS on something they read on their cousin’s neighbor’s dog-groomer’s Facebook page.

    BTW – While I appreciate the Azzaros shedding light on this issue, I’m NOT a fan of efforts to eliminate anonymous posting. Like Mark, I think there are legitimate reasons why some people might not want to disclose their identity. I also don’t think anonymity necessarily has to equal toxic stupidity.

  19. EOS
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Wobblie,

    The Hatch Act pertains to activities on the job or using governmental equipment or using the authority of their position. Federal employees are certainly entitled to free speech and political speech and political activity just the same as other civilians, so long as they are not using their office or position to do so.

    Have I ever called a single homosexual dumb or stupid or any other name for that matter? No. I merely called a behavior sinful and expressed reluctance to participate in activities that condone such practices. For the record, I think excessive drinking and many divorces and remarriages are also sinful, but most people are fine to disagree and nobody tries to crucify me for those opinions. Nobody is marching in the streets to prevent discrimination against excessive drinkers or those who remarry.

    I don’t have a problem with kjc disagreeing with so much. I just wished he/she would discuss the issues rationally and not just name call.

  20. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Dan, I actually do not hate kjc at all. At some point I just began feeling sorry for her.

    KJC, you have a long history of anonymous and mean spirited comments that are consistently devoid of rational content. Your comments, more often than not, have the same form and structure as the kind of speech the Azzaros were trying to draw attention to and critique in this performance piece and in this interview. Can you explain why you think that I am stupid for saying anonymous speech does more good than bad? Did you read the interview or read what the Azzaro’s had to say on their blog about the negative effects of anonymous speech; or are you just spouting off more mean spirited nonsense? Maybe your last comment was an attempt at intentional irony given the subject matter? I don’t know, kjc, your comments seem odd to me most of he time…Feel free to explain yourself sometime….or not.

    Azzaro’s, I think your performance piece is an interesting way to start a conversation about hateful anonymous speech and anonymous speech in general. Thank you! Well done!

  21. Clint Eastwood
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Lighten up, pussies.

  22. stupid hick
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I admire people who use their real names. It’s brave and generous. I wish Jean Henry would come back.

  23. Dan
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Oh, I know FF. I’m just messing around with her. I don’t have any intentions on trying to have a real conversation with her, as I don’t think she has every posted one meaningful thing on this blog.

  24. Posted August 9, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    A few people were inspired by this local Ypsilanti event.

  25. Posted August 10, 2016 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    I use my real name. I have nothing to lose.

    One day I will die and this will be the only record of my useless existence.

  26. Posted August 19, 2016 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    As someone who is banned from MLive comments (while using my own name) I can tell you what a bullshit operation they have going over there. My comments that were consistently removed were those that questioned the fairness and accuracy of the reporting, and challenged the reporters and editors to present the whole story.

    I would post links to missing info and other points of view, and have my comments immediately removed. I even had “moderators” email me at my private email address to argue with me about things I said in the comments, which were removed! I even had one moderator repeatedly contact me via private email after I asked them to stop, trying to pick an argument with me about a comment I made in defense of a child killed by a driver who was operating with a suspended license! When I forwarded a few of these to the editors at MLive state level, I was banned. One of our local hacks told me if I wanted to come into the MLive offices for a “briefing” I might get my account back. No thanks – I don’t need their indoctrination session, I was trying to raise the level of discourse by including facts.

    MLive knows who many of the people are who comment anonymously, if you mouse over the name in the comments and look at the browser it shows the original screen name the account is associated with. There is nothing impartial about the removal of comments, they allowed the same handful of anons to repeatedly slander , insult and even threaten me without removal. (screen caps upon request) Anonymous commenting may protect free speech, but it also lets political operatives and other paid trolls pollute the water.

    MLive is click bait, politically slanted garbage. While many wish it would go away, without reasonable alternatives like this blog, and the gone-but-not-forgotten Ann Arbor Chronicle, the powers that be will run (even more) rampant. The press still has a role in providing checks and balances by keeping people informed, it is up to the people to sniff out the LIES, of which there are many. At least Ryan Stanton bothers to show up at council meetings, even if he picks and chooses what parts of the story to tell. Something is better than nothing, and if you are upset about people saying “bad” things about Ypsi, well, what do you expect from such a crappy site?

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