Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pseudebate: Should names go with online comments?

Readers will recognize that this is one of my cherished hobbyhorses, and it's odd to find myself on the same side as Ben. I imagine that having spent a lot of time editing his commenters, he's simply realized that most anonymous comments aren't worth the time.

Once again the Courier has set up a false dichotomy for "debate." As several commenters are pointing out, there are plenty of ways to provide identity without risking retribution. So there's a lot of grey between guaranteed real names and no names at all.

Richard argues the benefits of anonymity, but apparently doesn't notice that comments on dCourier are anonymous only to readers -- the editors have email addresses and traceback capability. He writes, "It would be foolish to listen to feedback only if you know a customer's name and personal information," but of course he does know. There is no advantage to anonymity when you're not really anonymous.

The advantage of anonymous posting is to the Courier, in that heated exchanges keep the hits coming, raising the ad numbers. Richard is also the IT guy, it should be noted, and more comments looks good for his department. Quality doesn't matter.

What no one's saying is that if you're truly afraid that some nut or your boss is going to give you some sort of hell for speaking up in a certain way on a public issue, maybe you should just keep quiet and deal with your life in chains. You have other issues to resolve before you pipe up. If you take a good hard look you'll probably find that your fears are silly. Free your mind first, then your speech.

Ben writes, "We require everyone to sign letters and give a phone number so we can verify that they wrote the letter," assuring us that we can trust what's printed. He'll have to explain separately the several people I've known who wrote regularly under different pseudonyms so they could get published more often. It's a mug's game for everyone.

Commenting makes the paper accountable to its readers, directly and immediately. Commenters are also made accountable for what they say. But if you're wearing a mask, there's no reason to care what anyone thinks. That's why the comment sections turn into food fights. That's bad enough, but the factor people rarely note is the people who had something important to contribute but didn't post because they felt intimidated by the jerks or that the conversation was a waste of time. You can't count those people, and you'll never hear what they have to say until you make them feel safe enough to say it.


Candace said...

What did you think about the proposition that the Courier should act like normal online "publications" and require posters to register, so that they always post under the same unique handle?

Just to rattle the Courier cage, I immediately posted under the name "Ben Hansen," writing "You guys are all soreheads. Too chicken to use your names. (This is a test.)"

Not expecting to see it posted or receive any response, but happy to lob it over the wall anyway. They won't have to exert themselves--some know my email already.

Steven Ayres said...

I am absolutely in favor of registration supporting consistent identification. Online handles do not solve the problem of anonymous bomb-throwing, but they're a step in the right direction.

Rattling the cage is always a good idea, too. Go Candace!