Cleaning up online commenting
By Amy Dempsey
I am crossing the floor on an issue I’ve been raging about for years.
As recently as last week I
would have argued that news organizations should ban no-name commenting on
their websites. But days after an intense debate
with journo and non-journo friends about anonymous commenting, I’ve thought
about it, read more about it and revised my opinion.
Don’t get me wrong: I still
think the posts below our stories can be a hateful mess of vulgarity,
misinformation and unjustified personal attacks. On many news websites —
especially the less moderated — to scroll beyond the final graph is to venture
into the bowels of online news.
I once wrote a personal
essay that referred to a particularly strong childhood attachment to my pacifier.
When the essay was published
commenter “monkey Gemini” wrote: “So you enjoyed givin' that soother a good
workout did'jya? Hmmm, watcha' upto next wknd?”
Commenting as it currently
exists needs to change. But still, I don’t think attempts to strip forums of
anonymous or pseudonymous opinion-givers is the answer.
Here’s why I changed my mind.
There is a way to clean up
commenting forums without demanding commenters reveal their names.
Gawker Media’s Kaila
Hale-Stern spoke about the success of her company’s new approach on a recent
episode of CBC’s Spark. Gawker is the online media
and blogging network that owns popular tech blog Gizmodo. The company
implemented a tiered
commenting system halfway through 2009.
It works like this. Comments
from trusted users appear by default directly below stories — that’s Tier 1.
All other comments (Tier 2) are hidden behind a “show all comments” link that most
readers don’t click.
The system is for the most
part regulated by the people who use it. Trusted users have the power to decide
if other commenters — whether they go by Jane Doe or chumchum21 — are
The system filters comments
so that readers don’t have to wade through a pile of waste to get to the good
that the tiered system is working well so far. Commenter volume dropped
initially but then doubled in 9 months and anecdotal
evidence suggests the quality of commenting has changed for the better.
The company seems to have
proved that demanding identification is not the only way to better our commenting
While I would prefer to see
users comment under their real names, policing that doesn’t seem practically
feasible at this time — even with platforms like Facebook Connect.
And a more important
consideration is that not all nameless comments are evil and some people
comment under a fake name because they have to.
Washington Post ombudsman Andrew
Alexander defended pseudonymous commenters in a
“Anonymity provides necessary
protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude
identifying themselves,” he wrote. “And even belligerent anonymous comments
often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.”
With a tiered system we can
accomplish what we’re after — cleaned-up commenting — without booting anyone
out of the conversation.
Many news organizations are
in the process of reshaping their online commenting policies. Public editors
and reporters for newspapers like the
New York Times, and The
Washington Post have recently presented their thoughts on changes.
I hope news organizations
follow Gawker’s lead even if they don’t do it exactly the same way.
Online news is in its
infancy. It makes sense that we’re fixing what doesn’t work as we go along. The
process of running into problems, debating them and coming up with solutions is
part of the excitement of the new media world we live in.
Anonymous comments are part
of the new news reality but widespread belligerent commenting doesn’t have to
Photo by Amy McTigue on Flickr.
Photo by Amy McTigue on Flickr.