An anonymous comment ban could kill the public forum

In light of the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s recent outing of an anonymous commenter on their site, columnist Connie Schultz comes out against anonymous comments on news sites altogether.

I’m not at all surprised she’d take this stance – most reporters seem to feel this way because (I theorize, anyway), they have to put their names on everything they write and wish everyone who attacked their work had to do the same. It’s understandable, but in a lot of ways also very hypocritical.

Journalists want whistle-blowers to rat out government, friends and bosses and live for meaty quotes sharing unpopular or even dangerous points of view. We’ll also usually be happy to let you express those opinions anonymously — just so long as we get to put our bylines on them. We want to serve as a community hub and “voice of the people”, but only want to allow certain opinions to be heard.

The commenters on the story note readers appreciate knowing who is saying what and many acknowledge that it probably would improve the tenor of comments – but they also know it will cut back on dialogue at large (and not always the bad kind). Here’s a comment from a user named RVA123:

There are some risks with requiring names on Cleve.com forums: Though you may be able to ultimately verify authenticity, creating and posting false names will still be too easy for motivated trolls. It probably reduces participation – – which can be perceived as a good thing if it reduces irresponsible posts written solely to drive a negative reaction, and a bad thing if it kills your conversations (and a potential revenue stream for the site) altogether.

Several other commenters note they’d be less likely to share opinions under their real names because they don’t want their bosses and neighbors to know their political leanings, what they watch on TV, where they live or what they REALLY think of their jobs. It isn’t that they have something to hide or have such outrageous opinions they’d never want their names attached – they just want the modicum of privacy they feel the Internet has provided in the last decade or so.

So is less conversation really what we want? Is it better if we have fewer opinions so long as they’re all bylined and well thought-out? From the reactions I hear in my own newsroom every day, I’d say it’s an overwhelming opinion that yes, that’s exactly what we want.

I don’t like being in the position of defending the sort of toxic, anonymous comments that currently permeate news sites, but I believe we as an industry are clinging to an outdated model of what it means to allow the community to have its say. We think that by printing a handful of letters to the editor we are responsibly letting readers have a say because they put their names on those letters. Never mind that those letters usually don’t represent an entire generation of readers – one that tends to do most opinion-sharing online using social media – and are overwhelmingly submitted by white writers.

Aside from any demographic arguments that could be made (and I’d love more and better data if anyone has it), I know how I feel about what I read. My local letters to the editor regularly seem to me to be written by people who aren’t my age and don’t have much in common with my way of life, so I don’t consult them to find out real community reaction on the issues I care about and neither do most of my contemporaries. I turn to blogs, Twitter, Facebook and, yes, the comments on the stories themselves, to see what people have to say. There are a lot more of them – and they’re often far more familiar to me.

If news sites were to eliminate anonymous comments, we should consider what kind of reader would be left out in the cold. Not every anonymous commenter is a racist stalker with an axe to grind – so maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

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  • thedailydana

    Totally agree with you. It's a double-edged sword, but her solution is not logical.
    Even if we could verify identities, it would not solve the problem. For example, does Schultz think that girl whose dad killed himself would feel better if the nasty comments had a name attached? Sure, some people might be more likely to censor themselves, but it's naive to think that this would have protected her source. The Internet provides a quick way to articulate an intense emotion we feel while reading an article. Time usually helps those emotions fade, which is why written letters are fewer and less passionate.
    Also, when someone who is anonymous is being a jerk, it's easier for me to write them off as either being an coward, or an ill-informed 13-year-old, rather than an educated peer.
    The fact that Schultz uses Facebook as an example of how discourse can play out civilly when everyone has to use their real names proves she doesn't know much about Facebook. Randy recently had to end a friendship over how violently someone reacted to an innocent comment about Corey Haim. Corey. Haim. Imagine how hot-headed this person would have gotten if the topic were one that mattered, like the ones the newspaper covers.
    All this solution will do is ensure that those who want to remain anonymous take their conversation (and their page clicks) to another forum.

    • http://manjamedia.com Mandy Jenkins

      Right said. If someone's a jerk, they'll find a way to be a jerk online. They can still be a jerk under their real name, find a way around a filter or go to another site and be a jerk there. There will always be jerks on the Internets – the key will be moderating them.

      And Corey Haim? Really? Wow. I thought you were going to say health care reform or something.

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