What did you say your name was?

July 9, 2010

Let’s see who’s been commenting on Reuters stories and blogs in recent days and weeks. There’s gadfly, WeNotMe, Blisterpearls, northboundgirl, Snowshoes and JacktheBear, among others. I strongly suspect those are not their real names.

I don’t mean to call out these particular commenters, and I’m happy to see our readers taking the time to engage in robust discussion on Reuters.com. But I’m beginning to think our discussion would be even more robust and insightful if those making comments signed their real names.

News organizations have grappled with how to handle reader comments practically since the dawn of online media. When I was at MSNBC.com in the 1990s we had message boards that at first were heavily monitored (at a fairly high cost) and then were largely unmonitored. By 1998, no matter what the purported subject of the board, the discussion would be taken over by frenzied postings on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Some organizations have taken a very laissez-faire approach to reader comments, allowing anything to be posted and taking down only the most egregiously offensive comments after the fact. Others have taken a much more labor-intensive–and expensive–approach, moderating all comments before they’re published. Some have banned anonymous comments. Most are somewhere in the middle.
I spoke with Reuters general manager for global consumer media, Keith McAllister, about the Reuters.com approach.

“We want our users to be as involved as possible in Reuters.com,” Keith said. “User comments, particularly, help us move stories beyond our own reporting and analysis to unpredictably interesting and valuable places. We learn from (users) and, we believe, (users) learn from each other.”

He added: “We are also zealous guardians of the quality of the Reuters.com community because so many of you rely on our site to be a place of serious and informed debate. That’s why we ask users to register to comment and why–in the near future–we’ll take the additional step of clearing each new user’s first comment.”

I think that’s a smart move that will make the debate in the comments sections even smarter. Still, I wonder if we should tackle the question of anonymity.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten explored the subject of anonymous, vitriolic comments and asked in an online poll if readers who file comments should be required to identify themselves. As of this writing, about 46 percent say no and 41 percent say yes.

New technologies have offered more sophisticated and powerful monitoring and registration tools, but in the end it all comes down to how much news organizations are willing to spend and to whether we fundamentally believe that people should be allowed to comment anonymously or be required to identify themselves.

Print newspapers and magazines only publish signed letters to the editor and almost all verify the sender’s identity before publication. But again, this costs money and time.

Most news websites encourage comments and allow a great deal of freedom for commenters to say pretty much anything they want as long as it isn’t hate speech or obscene. The result is indeed a free-for-all of opinion, from right to left and, in some cases, well outside the generally accepted bounds of reality.

Isn’t this a good thing? the argument goes. Shouldn’t we encourage as much discussion as possible?

I’ve always thought so. But lately I wonder if the discussion is really serving the needs of our audience. As I read the comments on stories about the health care debate in the United States, so many seemed be little more than pre-cooked soundbites and talking points of the left and the right. There is little actual discussion as partisans on both sides fire salvos of invective at each other. And on stories that deal with Middle East, the divide is even more pronounced. Is this useful, or is it more like shouting at the television set–and just about as effective?

So what? I’ve been told. Is this really any different than Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where speakers can mount a soapbox and expound on pretty much anything they want to? Well, actually it is. In Hyde Park, you can see who’s doing the speaking.

Would the online debate among commenters be stifled by requiring commenters to sign their real names? I suspect some would be less likely to want to attach their names to their opinions and some would sign false names but I also believe we might get more thoughtful comments. And I believe commenters would be less likely to throw insults at an identifiable person than at an abstraction like johnny99gogo.

Of course, this may be an argument for the last century, anyway. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have changed the ways people share their thoughts with each other by promoting more selective communities. The comments section on stories and blogs may already be a dinosaur.

What do you think? Are there other ways to promote smarter, more civil discourse.

Chime in. But could you sign your real name?

Dean Wright
(formerly johnny99gogo)

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