When space is no longer an issue

Should we enforce a word limitation for online comments in order to foster a more open debate?

by Tim Franzen

Space is an issue for every form of writing. Newspapers speak in terms of inches. This column, for instance, will be about 15 inches long.

Most readers are more familiar with word counts and page limitations. An application for a scholarship might tell you to write an essay that’s about 200 words long. Letters to the editor should be under 300 words. And the first question after being assigned an essay is usually, “How many pages?”

But what if space is no longer an issue?

The Daily offers a forum for readers to give feedback visible to everyone online. Sign up, pick a username and log on in order to post comments after any news article, column or editorial. All other visitors to that story can see your comment if they choose to.

Until recently, the Daily offered this service free from any spatial limitations. People have been able to post comments as long or as short as they like. Members of the Daily staff, including myself, are unsure if this is such a good thing anymore.

I have proposed to the Editor in Chief and the Webmaster the possibility of putting a word-count restriction on online comments. There have been some posts that I would characterize as ridiculously long. For example, there was a post with more than 1,600 words in response to an editorial with less than 350 words.

I worry that unreasonably long posts do a disservice to online comments. The point of comments is to provide a service to readers that opens our paper for scrutiny and for the expression of readers’ ideas. We want to encourage a debate with a variety of opinions.

Readers will be less likely to plow through 1,600 words, and thus will be less likely to post their own opinion on the matter.

However, online comments are unique because there are no space issues. A post of 1,600 words is not significantly different from a post of 160 words as far as space is concerned. Maybe super-long posts are good for debate because they are full of opinions, some of which people might disagree with.

Only a select few can have their words printed in the pages of the Daily. The online comments section offers readers a way to have their thoughts read, no matter how lengthy or long-winded they may be.

My argument is that a restriction on comments would be a good thing. A limitation of 400 words or so would not restrict people from adequately expressing their ideas. In fact, it may encourage people to use words carefully and make interesting points in a concise way. After all, it’s online comments, not online diatribes, filibusters and lengthy monologues.

But this is all about the readers. And I, being your representative, want to hear what you have to say about it.

I invite everyone who reads this column to weigh in. Sign up and post an online comment right now. Send me an e-mail. Write a letter to the editor about it. Do something to let me know what you think of this idea. Should we enforce a word limitation for online comments in order to foster a more open debate? Or will any limitation on free expression be a detriment to the service?

I am not guaranteeing what we will do, but we are waiting to hear from you before we make a decision.

Tim Franzen is the Readers’ Representative. He welcomes comments at [email protected].