A Q&A with Mr. Potter, a story commenter with attitude

August 30th, 2010

I can say with confidence that every site on the Web that enables comments has a few commenters who … let’s just say they come off as a bit cold. Statesman.com has a few of its own, including a strongly opinionated guy who speaks from behind an anonymous handle and a movie character’s mask.

His name is “Roadgeek,” and his avatar is Mr. Potter, the heartless villain from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Roadgeek has contributed nearly 2,000 comments to Statesman.com in two years. Many are within our rules, even if a bit harsh at times, but some have gone over the line. Here’s a recent one that was deleted by the Statesman staff:

“Oh, boy. Poor women who had no business having babies they couldn’t afford to pay for in the first place are now having the care of their crotchlings subsidized by my tax dollars. All because the Catholic Church is having qualms. Happy days are here again.”

Andrea Ball, the Statesman’s charity beat reporter, says he frequently comments on her blog, and one day a comment he left hurt her feelings, so she reached out to him to see why he is so personal in his attacks. Through e-mail conversation, she softened him up some to the point where she now jokingly calls him her BFF. Roadgeek, for his part, was surprised not only that a reporter would reach out to a commenter, but that reporters at mainstream media sites even read comments. Andrea wrote a guest post on Roadgeek for Old Media, New Tricks.

I agreed to keep Roadgeek’s anonymity for this Q&A, though he told me he lives in Austin, and his public profile says he’s 47 years old and a male.

Why the name Roadgeek, and why Mr. Potter?

Roadgeek is a tribute to my hobby of traveling; I don’t fly but instead drive everywhere I go. I chose Mr. Potter as my avatar because he is easily recognizable as a minor American icon, and because much of what I say sounds as though he might have said it himself. Although he carried his greed and cruelty to others to an extreme, some of the values Potter stood for such as thrift, accountability, personal responsibility and social order no longer seem to be fashionable.

Have you ever considered using your real name? If not, why not?

I admire those who use their real name in commenting, but due to my employment situation I would probably never be able to do so. Were I to be outed I fear my career would suffer irreparable damage. At the very least, exposure would result in a nasty interview and counseling with our Ombudsman/Diversity Coordinator. Many of my comments would not be considered politically correct even by the most relaxed standards of social intercourse in 2010.

How close is Roadgeek’s personality to the personality that you project in face-to-face interactions? Is Roadgeek the real you that’s bottled up or more of an exaggerated version of you?

Roadgeek is a good bit harsher in public than I am, but it’s important to remember that Roadgeek is a reflection of my id; he says what I am thinking. He may seem more exaggerated than would seem normal, but he is unfettered by social restraint; his candor is shocking to those who have been trained to suppress their innermost and rawest thoughts. Roadgeek and Mr. Potter do indeed represent many of the values I hold dear, although for the sake of social cohesion I keep a tight leash on my id when I am around others. Don’t we all?

How much time do you estimate you spend commenting on stories each day? How many days a week?

I comment on stories every day of the week, as I am a voracious reader. However, I don’t spend a great deal of time commenting; perhaps 10 minutes a day. I do enjoy going back and checking for responses to my comments, as I enjoy the back-and-forth between other readers. I also enjoy reading the criticism of my comments. I have to confess that I learn a great deal from criticism; not everyone who disagrees with me is a fool.

What sites do you regularly read and comment on?

I read and comment on the San Francisco Chronicle, Beaumont Enterprise, Dallas Morning News, the Austin American-Statesman, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Interestingly, although I follow nearly 150 different blogs I comment on them very rarely. I think that may be because I grew learning to read and interact with a newspaper. Newspapers are what I am most comfortable with in terms of commenting.

What is your opinion on journalism and mainstream news Web sites? Are we too thin-skinned?

The MSM is very definitely too thin-skinned. I have a very low opinion of journalism and mainstream news web sites. I very firmly believe that journalists today allow their personal political ideology and agendas to clutter their journalism. Most journalists today also have a strong sense of wanting to improve and save the world; they see journalism as a way to act on that sense.

The MSM saw themselves as a gatekeeper of all that was fit to know; they saw themselves as arbiters of which knowledge was important and which was not; what things and events were irrelevant and what was not. The Internet set the public free, and professional journalism is still reeling. The Internet also has also empowered unconventional sources to act as substitutes for traditional media; John Edwards turned a supermarket tabloid into a respectable source of information, and the MSM has only itself to blame for allowing that to happen.

The fact that there has been such a dramatic realignment in news distribution in such a short period of time has been very hard on the conventional MSM, especially newspapers and magazines. The increasing irrelevancy of the MSM has made journalists very defensive about the quality of the work they do, and even what sort of work they do. Editors and reporters now get instant feedback on what’s published, and they don’t always like it. Not at all.

I sometimes glean quite a bit of extra information from the comments that isn’t covered in the story itself. Knowledgeable readers with some connection to the story or some additional insight will comment, adding to my reading experience.

What should news sites be doing when it comes to interacting with the public that they aren’t doing now? Should we engage with readers more in the comments section?

I definitely think journalists should engage with readers more; some papers have already started doing this. Your compatriot Andrea Ball will sometimes respond to comments by leaving another comment, and Mizanur Rahman of the Houston Chronicle routinely engages commenters on his Immigration Chronicles blog.

The MSM is ignoring a powerful new electronic tool, commenting, by posting a story and disregarding the comments. I think that if a paper invests the resources to create a story, and comments are critical of the story for whatever reason, then the paper needs to defend and stand by the story. Immediately. Some give-and-take with commenters could actually help the paper, and would certainly result in more page-views and clicks, which are life and death to a website. Immediate responses from reporters or editors could only help to build respect for a newspaper.

There is quite a bit of talk about either requiring people to use their real names, pull comments off sites completely or moderate them strictly because of abusive language and hateful personal comments. Cutting off that pipeline doesn’t seem like the right answer to me, but it’s frustrating to try to keep things from spinning out of control. What responsibility do commenters have to behave, if any, and what should news web sites do to keep things civil?

Commenters have a complete responsibility to behave and be civil to others. I’ve had comments deleted many times from different websites, and it’s a matter of pride to me that the deletions never occurred due to my using profanity or attacking another persons religion or sexuality. I’ve also never said anything libelous in any comment I’ve ever made. Many commenters simply do not understand how to be civil to others, and it shows. I understand the problem unfettered commenting can create for newspapers, and I simply do not have an easy answer to the problem. I understand that it’s difficult and costly for a newspaper to keep someone on staff to moderate comments, and I would really prefer to have them be unmoderated. I enjoy being able to say what I want to say.

Statesman reporter Andrea Ball says she’s developed a “BFF” e-mail relationship with you because she reached out. How did that interaction go, and should more reporters reach out the way Andrea did? What is the benefit of that?

I enjoyed chatting with Andrea via email, and in doing so we each learned a good deal about the other. I feel other reporters should engage their readers in this fashion, although doing so certainly presents somewhat of a risk to the reporter. Andrea took a chance, and it worked out well for her. We each learned a great deal about the other, which can only be a good thing. When the readers learn more about the reporters they tend to, I think, have a little more faith in their reporting.

Have you ever been banned from a site?

After the Fort Hood Shooting last fall I observed how ironic it was that, in the middle of one of the most heavily fortified and armed military facilities in the world, none of the killed or wounded soldiers were carrying a side-arm that day, and that it took two civilian police officers to bring down the shooter. Further, I wondered how was our military supposed to defend us when they couldn’t even defend themselves? This was apparently too much for the Houston Chronicle. I have not been allowed to comment on their site since then.

I suspect the banning stemmed from my challenging the established narrative flow of the story. The narrative was dedicated to the brave, heroic soldiers who died while serving their country. All I did was ask a question which immediately popped into my mind; why didn’t anyone have a side-arm? I posted the same comment, as did others, to the AA-S site; the comments were initially deleted before commenting was simply shut down. All a question of narrative, I believe.

I don’t use profanity. I don’t attack religion or the sexuality of others. I’m never abusive towards others. My comments get deleted simply because I say out loud what others are thinking. I say the things that get left unsaid in today’s oh-so correct don’t-want-to-offend society. My comments too often take aim at targets which have become sacrosanct in today’s dialogue. It’s become taboo to point out that blacks seem to have problems with standardized tests or that blacks have a much higher crime rate than other groups or that Hispanics have a much higher rate of DWI or that perhaps soldiers on active duty really should carry sidearms or that women really don’t seem to have an aptitude for engineering or the sciences and the list goes on and on …

Anything else you want to add?

I’ve noticed that different sites seem to have different commenting policies and I find that interesting. The AA-S is actually very quick to delete comments it finds offensive, as is the Houston Chronicle. The Beaumont Enterprise, interestingly enough, has very broad standards regarding commenting, as does the Dallas Morning News.

- Questions for OMNT by Robert Quigley

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Entry Filed under: comments,Old Media Interview

  • Somewhereinthemiddle

    ” I very firmly believe that journalists today allow their personal political ideology and agendas to clutter their journalism. Most journalists today also have a strong sense of wanting to improve and save the world; they see journalism as a way to act on that sense.”

    Totally agree with this. Its quite obvious when you see the very liberal Austin-American Statesman & the extremely conservative Fox News. There in no such thing as 'fair and balanced' news anymore.

  • Pingback: Guest post on story comments: How I won over Mr. Potter | Old Media, New Tricks

  • womaninscience

    “women really don’t seem to have an aptitude for engineering or the sciences and the list goes on and on …”

    As a surgical resident in a department of general surgery which has >50% female residents (in Texas) I find it sad and insulting that you would think such a comment like this is appropriate. The reason things like that are taboo is because they are often not a true reflection of fact (which in this case, is that women are NOT lacking in aptitute for science/engineering but rather encouraged by society to pursue less “manly” careers).

    Overall, I feel sorry for you.

  • Pingback: New Tricks: Journalism on demand | Old Media, New Tricks


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