Would you give your credit card number to be allowed to have a letter to the editor printed in the newspaper? Think it’s an absurd question? Maybe not.
Beginning today, The Sun Chronicle (in Attleboro, MA) is abolishing anonymous comments the only foolproof way they know how: By attaching usernames to credit transactions.
The paper is charging commenters a one-time fee of 99 cents to be paid by credit card to that each user’s comments and community name will be tied to the name on the paying card (which also is tied to their real address and phone number).
This isn’t all that new, of course. It is a similar approach as what Honolulu news start-up Civil Beat does for their site’s discussion membership level, which charges 99 cents a month via Paypal to leave comments on the site. When Jay Rosen was here visiting us at TBD a few weeks back, he sang the praises of this system for keeping trolls out of their (notably civil) online discussions.
I, as you might gather from past posts, do not agree with the entire premise of this plan for several reasons.
First and foremost, this move can and will eliminate certain segments of the paper’s readership from ever being able to post comments. Aside from the trolls they want to eliminate, the paper can also count out those who do not have a credit card. This can include young people, those with credit problems or otherwise bad finances, those who don’t trust online financial systems – and numerous other possibilities I’m sure aren’t coming to mind right away.
And anonymity, while it can breed ugliness in online comments, has its virtues as well. The ability to speak out without identification is a necessary part of sometimes difficult discussions (like the kind we have on news sites).
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation expounded eloquently on this point in a different case (involving an embarrassing edict and retraction by the gaming company Blizzard):
Anonymous speech has always been an integral part of free speech because it enables individuals to speak up and speak out when they otherwise may find reason to hide or self-censor. Behind the veil of anonymity, individuals are more free to surface honest observations, unheard complaints, unpopular opinions…
Without anonymity, the comments may end up being quite banal. The next time the Sun Chronicle wants to crowdsource a story (if they do that sort of thing), they can rule out getting anyone to talk openly about their medical conditions, their families, if they witnessed a crime, if they’re having money problems – anything they wouldn’t want the whole community to know.
And finally, is this sort of step really necessary to control comments anyway? As I’ve said before, it is possible to create a robust online community by simply being more engaged as a staff. Better community via interaction is what we aim to do where I work.
Going back to the Civil Beat model, it should be noted the site’s discussions have staff hosts who are an active and visible presence in their threads. How much of Civil Beats, er, civility, is actually better attributed to staff interaction as opposed to their identified commenters?
Of course, that level of interaction requires staff hours most news orgs can’t or won’t spare. There are other, less time-intensive methods that are built into comment systems that other sites have managed to use to control trolls.
As the Editors Weblog noted:
…many prominent publications such as The Globe and Mail and NYT are able to maintain flourishing online communities by instituting a combination of user-rankings (inappropriate comments are quickly down-voted while insightful ones get promoted to the top of the page) and paid moderators.
It seems like a lot of overkill to ban anonymous comments in this fashion when there are other options available that can yield similar results – and yet still allow open discussion.