In defense of anonymousNovember 16th, 2011 by David Nelson
The weekly newspapers in Kitsap County owned by Sound Publishing will soon require readers to log-in with a Facebook account if they’d like to comment on a story.
I wasn’t planning to write anything about the change, because it’s one of many experiments being tried in the industry and not something we’re pursuing. I’ve written about other attempts to change commenting before, and stated my feeling that tech solutions alone aren’t the answer to the downside of online commentary on news sites. I disagree that eliminating anonymous comments will alone somehow “mature” the discussion on newspaper websites, and, despite the occasional heartburn we experience here in monitoring comment threads, I believe there is good reason to allow pseudonyms in online forums and we’ve committed to that. It’s also not my cup of tea to hand a website’s registration process over to Facebook, or to force my readers to sign up for a site they may have no interest in.
That said, after seeing our newspaper’s “credibility” called into question (yes, it’s our newspaper Lary Coppola is talking about if you scroll down on the comments), I felt like responding by sharing a quick story.
A few weeks ago I wrote two emails to readers who use pseudonyms to comment on our site. They had, I felt, commandeered a comment thread by pointing in a direction I thought was off-topic from the story itself. Their part of the discussion took on a fairly weighty and serious topic in the context of a lighter feature story, which seemed inappropriate. I asked that they keep the heavier and controversial discussion to stories with a more direct relation to their argument. (Sorry, but I’m keeping it general out of respect to these readers. Some of you may still figure out who these guys are, but that’s beside my point here.)
One called me back the next morning and we talked about it, the other guy actually showed up in the office. They both get bashed from time to time on the threads because of some divergent viewpoints, but both were pleasant and reasonable and I really enjoyed both conversations.
I don’t often hear outpourings of thanks like the one that came from one of these guys. Kitsapsun.com discussion forums are incredibly important to him, and the anonymity is key. Because of his contrarian viewpoints on certain topics, this man doesn’t want to use his name. He’s not advocating hate, lying about who he is or bashing others simply to bash; he’s expressing a view that could harm his business or ostracize him from his in-laws or long-time friends. He uses our forums as an outlet, hoping to engage others in a discussion that is near to his core beliefs, or perhaps to see that others in our community think like he does. That utopian idea of enlightened back-and-forth doesn’t always happen, of course (just as it doesn’t always happen in real life), and some threads have a tendency to devolve and allow one or two critics to harp on this guy. But he remained optimistic about the free, open forum that has coalesced into a community on kitsapsun.com, and his optimism is something I tend to share.
I think the anonymity offered on our comment boards gives critics of it a faulty perch on which they assume the worst of people: that is, the argument those who won’t use their “real name” are jaded cretins wallowing in hate and aggression. There’s probably some like that, sure, and there’s others who won’t engage cooperatively or listen to reason. The two men I spoke with have experienced the short end of that stick again and again. They’ve learned, like I have all the times the Sun gets beat up on those forums, that in the online world you need both thick skin and a decent sense of humor.
So I’ll stand by the practice of allowing pseudonyms as part of the community that’s developed on our site. That sort of “free speech” doesn’t mean we allow all speech, as we’ve repeated many times when pointing users toward our comment guidelines. But I’ll take the responsibility that comes with hosting an open forum, where contrarian views can be held and all opinions can be offered, because I believe that’s part of how we communicate online. Pseudonyms let readers remain anonymous, but they also allow commentors to build credibility through being consistent in opinions or reasonable in debates. And I think most of us are smart enough to sort out which of those we trust.
One last point, to briefly clear up another fallacy that was raised on that Port Orchard Independent piece I linked to above. We don’t keep anonymous comments because it somehow benefits us monetarily. (In fact, as far as staff time on moderation is concerned, we offer them at a loss.)
It’s true that part of online advertising is based on
page views, but looking at our statistics does not bear out that
the majority of our page views come from stories with high comment
traffic. We get more traffic from obituaries than most stories with
multiple comments. Even on opinion pieces that draw more than 100
comments over a period of days, those rarely compete with our most
viewed stories of the day, and they tend to draw the same small
group of repeat readers rather than a broad range of unique
visitors, which advertisers may also find
attractive. There’s no moral choice of sacrificing ethics in a
chase for page views.
My guess is there will be some discussion beneath this post, so I’ll try to answer any more questions there. Thanks for reading.