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!

10 Responses to "Reader comments: It’s time to make ’em civil"

  1. Christopher Ryan
    Christopher Ryan 7 years ago .Reply

    All good ideas, but still not quite far enough. The reader comments should be serious comments, not chit-chat (even if it is more civil than the current slime at the bottom of so many news stories these days). I’d suggest a small fee for each comment — two cents (billed in, say, $5 increments). That would filter out much of pointless stuff, resulting in fewer but much higher quality comments. And it’s got a catchy marketing angle: “My Two Cents” — literally.

  2. Shaun G
    Shaun G 7 years ago .Reply

    I’m the creator of Truyoo (www.truyoo.com), which takes an interesting approach to encouraging civility on the Web.

    Users pay a small one-time fee (currently $1.35) to have their name verified — essentially, they have to provide a credit card whose name matches the name they have entered.

    Users who post comments that adhere to a site’s terms of service will never have to pay anything more. And because a Truyoo ID can be used on multiple sites, they only have to pay the fee once.

    Users who post abusive comments, on the other hand, have their Truyoo ID disabled on *ALL* sites that accept Truyoo. That’s a powerful incentive to remain on your best behavior.

    Best of it, Truyoo is free for sites to implement.

  3. Anna Tarkov
    Anna Tarkov 7 years ago .Reply

    Christopher, with all due respect, charging readers to comment seems nuts to me. I think having vigilant community managers would get the job done just as effectively, if not better. Have you ever read about the way the Economist does it? They are very committed to making their content social, but also keeping the discourse civil. Also, rewarding users for good behavior and punishing them for bad actions can work. Finally, there are ways to “blind block” a user so that they continue to be able to post, but no one will see what they say and they will be unaware of this.

  4. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Anna: Many local news sites don’t have the money to devote to Economist-like staff vigilance of user comments. Certainly that would be ideal, but in the case of a small or medium size newspaper’s website, it ain’t gonna happen. The choice is either minimal staff policing/etiquette-enforcing and user discussion run amok, or more draconian measures such as charging to comment or not charging but requiring use of real names. IMHO.

    On Truyoo… Interesting concept. But I fear that many people will object as they’ll view it as a money-making scheme (despite the low cost). If you can market it to get past that barrier, I think it has promise. I know I wouldn’t put it on my blog (too big a barrier), but it could make sense for controlling a big site overrun by comments, many of them inane or worse.

    Shaun, is Truyoo a revenue source for site that use it? I.e., do they get a slice of that fee if one of their users/commenters signs up and pays the Truyoo fee?

  5. Anna Tarkov
    Anna Tarkov 7 years ago .Reply

    Steve, that’s a valid point, but I don’t think it takes an army of employees to necessarily do the job. It really only takes one person (hardly a huge investment in staff resources). Especially in the case of small publications, one person could absolutely do the job so long as comments are moderated (don’t appear right away and must be approved). Also, reporters/bloggers should be given the opportunity to moderate their own comments. When done well, the result is fantastic. See for example: http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn Of course the best thing of all is when an environment is created for users that empowers them and gives them a stake in maintaining a civil discourse. For an example of such a community, see http://www.windycitizen.com In all of these cases and others, it is not necessary to resort to charging users to comment.

  6. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Anna: I agree with you; alas, it doesn’t appear that many news sites have the resources or motivation to devote a full-time person to comments, nor require reporters to moderate comments on their own stories. Perhaps that will be more widespread in time.

    On charging, I think Civil Beat’s 99-cent/month experiment is intriguing; ditto for Truyoo. My own suggestion, in my post above, does not include charging. But I’m open to being proven that charging can work.

    If each site wanted me to pay to comment, that’s clearly not going to work and will limit my user participation. Truyoo may be a step in the right direction since it applies a network solution: Pay one fee which covers you across many sites that want quality participation and to control trolls, et al. This might be smart to integrate into Intense Debate as an *option* for its publisher users.

  7. Chip Oglesby
    Chip Oglesby 7 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I know that some larger news sites have teams devoted to moderating comments which is great, I’m all for that, but how does a large or even medium size newspaper prove the authenticity of each commenter?

    Is it safe to assume they use the subscribers credit card info to identify who’s who?

  8. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Chip: As noted above, one innovative solution (experiment?) is http://www.truyoo.com/ … Otherwise, I’d say that you can’t prove the authenticity of each commenter (unless you want to require a credit card to have an account). But if your commenters abide by the real-name policy, say, at a rate of 80-90%, you’ve got a much smaller problem to deal with by moderators/editors.

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