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.
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.]