Reader comments: It’s time to make ’em civil

By Steve Outing

Have you been watching the Honolulu Civil Beat news experiment? That’s the Hawaii news website edited by John Temple (former editor of the defunct Rocky Mountain News) and financed by Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay).

While I have doubts that its business model (asking $19.99 a month for full access to the news site’s content and discussions) will work, I do think that it’s heading in the right direction with its user commenting policies:

  • Commenters must be paying subscribers; free visitors to the site can’t leave comments on articles or join discussions. (A cheaper option is to pay 99 cents a month for a “Discussion Membership.”)
  • Commenters and discussion participants use their real names; anonymous comments are not allowed.
  • Civil Beat reporters serve as hosts for discussions and regularly interact; they don’t sit on the sidelines but rather mix it up with readers, and keep things “civil.”

As the site’s name implies, the goal is to create valuable, intelligent, civil online discussions on local and state issues where there are divergent views. While the paid-subscription model limits the size of its audience for full content and for participating in discussions (anyone can still read discussions for free), the tenor of the public conversation on the site is far better than the typical local news website where user comments are a free-for-all.

Civil Beat subscriptions
An unusual option: Honolulu Civil Beat’s “Discussion Membership” for 99 cents per month

Here in Boulder, we have the opposite of civil with the user comments on DailyCamera.com, website of the dominant daily newspaper. A recent major story demonstrates the problem with the Daily Camera allowing commenters to hide their identity.

A few weeks ago, an employee of a stove and floor store killed the couple who owned the business, then killed himself. The married couple left behind a young teen daughter and were beloved by many people. The employee-shooter was a 50-year-old ex-computer programmer described as socially awkward, oddly compulsive, never married and no children, who lived alone with his cat, and apparently was disgruntled about a change to his commission structure.

The best media outlet to follow the tragedy has been the Daily Camera and its website, which examined the lives of those involved and (controversially) covered the store owners’ emotional funeral. But what was awful about the Camera’s online coverage was the user comments that piled up under any article published about this sensational tragedy.

DailyCamera.com uses IntenseDebate for its web comment hosting, and while to comment on a story you do need to register, there’s no requirement to publicly identify yourself. You can use a nickname (like “SwitzTrail,” a frequent commenter) and hide in anonymity. IntenseDebate hosts an archive of SwitzTrail’s comments posted on DailyCamera.com and other ID-using sites where he/she has posted, but there’s no profile information on that person. You don’t have to identify yourself publicly if you don’t wish to in order to post a comment.

This stove store shooting story confirms my strengthening opposition to commenter anonymity when it comes to local general-news sites. Many of the user comments I read online during the height of the coverage were truly abhorrent, with wild speculation that maybe the business owners were too greedy and that’s why this happened, and suggestions that current government policies may result in more stressed-out people going whack-o. (I could point you to many other recent examples of Boulder stories with comment threads filled with anonymous, abusive, and downright stupid posts. It’s the same at too many news websites.)

This is the stuff that sane people would not publish if their real names were attached. I hope the orphaned daughter was not exposed to this anonymous drivel.

DailyCamera.com’s editors removed some of the worst comments. To get an idea of what got nixed, and some of what remained online, here’s one of the more rational commenters:

“It’s sickening the way some of you are rationalizing the murderer’s actions. Who cares whether or not the compensation package was fair or not, he could have quit at any time. This guy was a murderer and a psychopath, and I hope he is rotting in hell! Scary to see how many people sympathize with this guy!”

I’m not trying to be anti-free speech, and I believe that anonymity can have its place. But here’s what I’d suggest for DailyCamera.com and other news sites where divergent views are the norm:

  1. Require registration for anyone who wishes to comment, including entering their real name.
  2. Use real names as user IDs — no self-chosen nicknames allowed — so that real people are standing behind their words; that will cut out most of the abusive and garbage comments. (Yes, of course, some people will easily get around that with a fake “real name.” But if the majority comply, you’ll have less incivility entering the comment stream, and people who don’t comment now because of the ugly tone of the discussion threads may return.)
  3. Allow a registered user to create a comment that is listed as “anonymous,” but such comments must go through a moderator for approval; no instant posts.

Additionally, a local news site like DailyCamera.com could institute a “Discussion Membership” fee, a la Honolulu Civil Beat. That might cut user participation so much that it’s not a wise move; then again, it might be successful enough to add a needed extra revenue stream while also moving the needle on user comments from Dumb and Dumber to Quasi-Intelligent and above.

So the solution is quite simple for those news sites needing to improve their public online discourse. Just say no to anonymity, except in exceptional circumstances.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!