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On Comments: And who are you?

April 1st, 2010 by David Nelson

Eric Zorn, playing off a line by columnist Leonard Pitts today in his Chicago Tribune blog, expressed something that has circled around our discussions of how to handle story comments* on kitsapsun.com.

Pitts, who I respect a great deal and really enjoy reading, says anonymity is the scourge of newspaper message boards. He’s not wrong. That’s the Internet in 2010 for ya, and anyone tuned into our own comment threads knows how quickly a topic can be led off the rails (and much more quickly when a bikini barista is involved). Zorn, in part agreeing with Pitts, also says anonymity and pseudonimity aren’t a bad thing “if they’re overseen by a relatively vigilant proprietor.”

That’s more or less where we’ve settled, at least for the time being, regarding Kitsapsun.com comment threads. The genie is out of the bottle as far as building a system that verifies every identity of a Web site user, and I’m not convinced that level of security is what we want to be asking for either. As journalists have know for years, there can be value in anonymity.

What we are striving to do as a staff is become part of the conversation, whether by moderating the comments on our blogs to filter out those without merit, or by simply joining the comments to answer questions and lend credibility to the dialouge.

Interestingly, on the same day I read Zorn’s column I was on a conference call for editors from the newspapers in our company, Scripps. One slide compared the number of staff comments posted on stories to the number of comments removed, to see whether there is a correlation (i.e. if more staff participates does it lower the number of comments that need to be removed?). In the months of January and February, the Kitsap Sun had far and away the greatest ratio of staff postings to staff removals among Scripps papers, and three times as many staff comments posted than most. And we’re among the smallest third of the 14-newspaper Scripps family. So the numbers, while not conclusive of any effect our joining the conversation may have, do show that our staff is out in front about being engaged with our readers. Which I think will pay dividends in the years to come.

But back to the Zorn column. One last thought, on this statement: “The compromise solution seems to me to be allowing people to comment and discuss issues using a consistent identity of some sort.”

That stuck with me given the, let’s say, robust discussion of the Sun’s political leanings and other failings that followed my last post. Although several of you regularly use your full names, like Mick, Colleen, Sharon and Roger, others prefer a pseudonym. I don’t think there’s a problem with that as long as the pseudonym follows, as Zorn wrote, a “consistent identity.” I don’t agree with all of the challenges you leveled, but those with a consistent identity have credibility to me, and thus are deserving of a response to the extent time allows, and in those comments I rarely see the rants that Pitts worries about.  (Though I do see those sentiments in our story comments section far too often for comfort.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that, even after the heaping spoon of criticism I felt left with after that last post, I do appreciate the integrity and tact most of you show in the online back-and-forth. Let’s keep it up.

— David

*Comments are different than “blogs.” It’s a pet peeve of mine, yes, but if you want my attention don’t call the section after a story, where you leave comments, “the blogs.” I hear it once a day, and sigh. But enough of that rant.

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7 Responses to “On Comments: And who are you?”

  1. Colleen Smidt Says:

    David, a version of this conversation comes up on one of the “blogs” yes, blogs every few months. Here is a summary of the last one that I know of on Christopher Dugans Blog. It just so happens to be between 3 people who do use their real names…

    Tom Says:
    January 21st, 2010 at 11:16 am

    If the Kitsap Sun blogs required contributers to use their real names, perhaps – just perhaps – a richer, more informed dialogue could be maintained. As it presently exists, the contributions too frequently degenerate to uninformed opinion and persomality attacks. Care to comment on this thought?
    Tom Nevins

    • Colleen Smidt Says:
    January 21st, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Tom, this topic has been around the block several times now. Especially over the past couple of years. There are points to be made on both sides. Not all of the contributors who choose to use screen names instead of their real ones, for whatever reasons, are bad contributors. Just as not all contributors who use their real names are good contributors.

    In the past two years I have seen significant progress in the quality of the postings. Especially in the “blog” comment section versus the “story” comment section. The ability to tag comments for removal option that is available to everyone is an excellent tool. A tool that has helped tone down the really off topic and offensive posts that were much more prevalent 2 or 3 years ago.

    It is getting better. It also helps when posters are more discriminatory about picking and choosing who they have discussions with and on what topics. I choose to use my real name and in my perfect blog world everyone else would as well. But I will not force that type of disclosure on others who cannot or choose not to use their real names. I will continue to monitor what they post and tag that for removal which crosses any lines.
    Colleen Smidt

    • cdunagan Says:
    January 21st, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Well said, Colleen. I agree with your observations. I also have to say that I’ve been generally pleased with the discussion on this blog. We’ve talked about complex and divisive issues, but most writers are able to stick to facts and perceptions while avoiding name-calling and personal attacks.

    Comments on stories can be more annoying, because some people are so predictable in their terse reactions and others have trouble understanding things.

    I still stand by these comments and feel that this conversation really sums it up.

  2. rodentraiser Says:

    I wouldn’t have a problem with using my real name except for the fact that I’m unemployed right now and looking for a job. Even if I was employed, there are a lot of managers and bosses that could take offense to my opinions, even when they have nothing to do with how well I do my job or when they’re expressed “off the clock”. I’m just being careful.

    Besides that, rodentraiser is basically my internet name. If you see rodentraiser anywhere in a forum, that’s probably me.

    And I have to say, I love that the staff of Kitsap Sun read the comments. Although the commenters are representative of only a small group of people, reading comments is a great way to gauge what the community feels about certain subjects. I think it should be mandatory for all elected officials to read comments on newspaper stories. It might make them more aware of the needs of their community.

  3. Registered Voter Says:

    There are points to be made on both sides. Not all of the contributors who choose to use screen names instead of their real ones, for whatever reasons, are bad contributors. Just as not all contributors who use their real names are good contributors.

    This has been my consistent position since posting on the blogs or comments sections. As some in the blogs already know, I used my real name for years before changing to a nom de plume. I am also well known in this region and openly tell reporters and other bloggers who I am upon meeting them.

    I am more than willing to stand on the line and take responsibility for my thoughts and words, but I drew a line when another participant decided their feelings towards my words warranted culling information, and taking actions against an innocent third party. There are no philosophical arguments which will convince me to place others at risk for my choice to engage here, particularly minors. If the ‘punishment’ for that is being considered less credible or worthy of acknowledgment, I consider that the other party’s loss.

    For me, what has always mattered most is informed and civil discussion, whether anonymous or otherwise, even if it can become vigourous at times. The ad hominem I can do without. None of us is perfect and sometimes it can get a bit heated, but there is a core group of bloggers upon whom I can count on to offer reasonable exchange, or return to it post-eruption.

  4. Roger Gay Says:

    I like reading the blogs. I may not comment on every article or story, but I do read almost all of the blogs and comments everyday, not only in the Sun. It is not much different than being in a room full of people and hearing or joining in on the multitude of conversations that may be taking place. The nice thing is you get to preview or filter the comments prior to posting, unlike a conversation where you might put a foot in the mouth.

    I admit I do take those who use their real name a more seriously. I will say on a blog what I would say to your face or to you in a casual conversation. There are quite a few who like the anonymity, but even with that make a contribution to the conversation. Some on the other hand use the anonymity to say what they would not say in person. Those are easy to spot and discount their limited response. That is another good thing about blogging or commenting, you can skip around the obvious chuckle heads.

    What we see in the blogging and commenting are no different than what we see in normal conversations and events throughout life in Kitsap. If a person seems overly opinionated, uninformed, misinformed, or downright ignorant on a subject, it was not because he started using a computer. More likely that person is overly opinionated, uninformed, misinformed, or just ignorant in real life too.

    Roger Gay
    South Kitsap

  5. Gregg Says:

    I admit, I use a screen name, post as ‘gmaint’ most of the time I leave it that way. If I am responding to an article that is important to me, I will sign off with Gregg M. (Seabeck)

  6. BlueLight Says:

    Requiring people to identify themselves is a typical tact of a ruling party to intimidate dissent away from public participation. I notice the subject comes up when the conversation takes a turn the paper may not want. Typical, also. Keep considering the temptation to limit free speech and you will slide from increasing irrelevance to outright bankruptcy (financial and moral).

    Now tell me: Why do you feel the Kitsap Sun is due credit for “every beach in our county that is great to visit”?

  7. Sharon O'Hara Says:

    “*Comments are different than “blogs.” It’s a pet peeve of mine, yes, but if you want my attention don’t call the section after a story, where you leave comments, “the blogs.”..”

    Thanks for the heads up. I don’t know if I’ve done it or not.
    What is a blog comment called if not a comment?

    Roger …”If a person seems overly opinionated, uninformed, misinformed, or downright ignorant on a subject, it was not because he started using a computer. More likely that person is overly opinionated, uninformed, misinformed, or just ignorant in real life too.”

    I think most folks are one or more on one or more subjects…and we’re here to learn or those who know, to inform. Why else be here?

    Sharon O’Hara

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