Commenting comes with a price — your name

I’m glad the News & Record is banning anonymous online comments.

From editor Jeff Gauger: “Anonymous comments invite bullies to give offense for no other reason than they find it fun. They encourage normally well-mannered people to occasionally behave badly. And they waste the time we must devote to minding comment threads gone wild.”

Exactly.

Initially, when I was editor there, I was a proponent of opening the doors and letting everyone in without checking their IDs. We were developing what we hoped would be a town square, where people would come to shop, hear the news, tell us and others the news, and chat with friends and newcomers. It seemed to be the way a true town square operated.

How quaint.

Once we realized that anonymous commenters would chase civility — and often intelligence — out to the suburbs, we asked and begged them to stop. Then we threatened. Nothing worked. Finally, we started kicking offensive commenters out. But, in a sense, we couldn’t kick fast enough. Those we booted could, and often did, create a new email address and a new identity and got in again. We discussed requiring true IDs, but couldn’t come up with a way to make it work efficiently within the content management system we had. I was in the middle of what turned out to be a long process of laying off journalists and cutting expenses. Devoting hours of someone’s time to verify online identities seemed to be the wrong use of resources.

I’m glad Jeff has figured it out.

Two thoughts:

While the N&R wants increased traffic to the site, this move is sure to decrease traffic. With anonymity, people argue passionately for days over an issue. It happens on the N&R site and happens on blogs. But my experience on the social networks is that once people use their real names, they act with more civility. As a result, conversations are muted and shortened. That may be good for community, but it’s bad for traffic.

On the flip side, it probably means that most of the content will be opened for comments. We started limiting the number of stories, editorials and letters people could comment on because we couldn’t monitor them all. Now, with only verified users commenting, there is much less danger in offensive and insulting comments. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on the comments on Jeff’s column. They’re starting to get good. All from anonymous commenters, of course.

2 thoughts on “Commenting comes with a price — your name

  1. As a newspaper reporter, I’ve been torn about the anonymity vs. verified identity debate on web comments. The clicks and the participation on our newspaper’s site, versus civility — just as you describe it.

    I started off strongly anti-anonymity, then was worn down by the majority in the newsrooms where I have worked. The argument was that we should let the people in and give them the voice they so clearly desire.

    Reading this post, and reflecting on what I have seen of web comments, encourages me to stick to my first instinct. With few exceptions, comments on news stories and blog posts at newspapers I am familiar with can be boiled down to these categories: political extremism, racism, hate speech more generally, and incoherent rants that suggest to this layperson some degree of mental illness.

    One commenter posted a roughly 1,000-word alternative history of European settlers’ interactions with native Americans that read like Thomas Pynchon on an especially mean spirited and undisciplined day of writing. I read the comment three times, wondering if I needed to flag it for racism, but in the end couldn’t discern its meaning. (I can usually get something out of a passage of Pynchon after the third read.)

    Any campaign that promotes anonymity for the sake of a marketplace of ideas is admirable but seems to be strictly an academic exercise.

  2. Pingback: Former Newspaper Editor Realizes Now What He Was Doing Wrong | Tips for the Unready

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