Friday, July 09, 2010


The Massachusetts Sun Chronicle goes “civil” for only 99 cents but gives up anonymous commenting

“…Anonymous speech has always been an integral part of free speech because it enables individuals to speak up and speak out when they otherwise may find reason to hide or self-censor. Behind the veil of anonymity, individuals are more free to surface honest observations, unheard complaints, unpopular opinions…”—Electronic Frontier Foundation

by Larry Geller

The Sun Chronicle has taken steps to block comments not in line with its posted commenting policy. The ability to comment anonymously was abandoned by the paper on Sunday with an announcement beginning:

The opportunity to post comments on stories on Sun Chronicle websites will be restored this week, Publisher Oreste P. D'Arconte announced today, with posters required to use their real names.

To enforce this change, all posters will be required to register their name, address, phone number and a legitimate credit card number.

The credit card will be charged a one-time fee of 99 cents to activate the account.   [Sun Chronicle, The Sun Chronicle restores commenting section to website, 7/4/2010]

Comments posted to their website will henceforth include the full name of the commenter and the town where they live. The 99 cent charge is no paywall, since it is a one-time fee and site content remains freely available to anyone. If anyone posts to their website, that person’s neighbors (and everyone else) will know who said what.

The Sun Chronicle is not, of course, the first to take this path.

The paper was reacting to the sad state of discourse on their wide-open website. Like similar newspaper websites, where delivering eyeballs to advertisers is often a consideration, the paper apparently determined that its website had become a polluted swamp (my words). In reaction, it shut off comments entirely at first.

Cutting off comments effectively drains the swamp but does nothing for advertising revenue, of course. Aside from that consideration, the same problem plagues websites and blogs unaffiliated with newspapers and whether or not they carry ads. It seems that there are sufficient numbers of trolls and flamers out there to pollute any open website that allows them in. Nor is there is a shortage of welcoming sites. Shut out from one, they move on to another.

“Alice” notes on SkyBluePink that the trolls would probably be incredibly embarrassed if their comments were identified with them. That’s how the Sun Chronicle approach works. The rude, profane or otherwise irresponsible commenters will have to go elsewhere to have their fun.

Snipping from the middle of her article:

That said, I honestly believe that anonymity serves an important purpose online. It allows people to express opinions that they would otherwise be afraid to express. It allows people to explore things that they would otherwise be fearful of exploring.

Imagine, for example, a health oriented website where someone wasn’t able to ask for advice anonymously. Or someone in an abusive situation not being able to anonymously explore how to gain the strength needed to remove themselves from that situation. [SkyBluePink, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength”…, 6/6/2010]

(The article refers to a relevant panel discussion located here.)

It’s easy to imagine that in a small town setting, people might be fearful to express themselves even on mundane political matters for fear of retribution.

In Hawaii, the ability to comment anonymously on the current civil unions controversy may be the only opportunity someone may have to express themselves without fear of retaliation from an employer, for example. Anonymity also protects those in government who wish to reveal matters that their supervisors want kept secret from the public.

“Alice” wisely concludes:

So yes..a true double edged sword. And I for one certainly don’t have the answers.

There are many tools that websites use to permit yet control anonymous comments. The most common is moderation. That is, a human being reviews and approves or deletes each comment. This can be overwhelming on a high-traffic site, especially at first. The trolls come back doubly vicious when their comments are first denied. Eventually, they move on to another playground, but new ones appear to replace them. 

Another technique is community rating. While effective in the end, obnoxious comments remain until they are voted off the website, which encourages some trolls to keep at it.  Finally, one can just turn off comments completely.

Other websites, without moderation or community rating, seem to allow open posting of comments yet avoid the troll problem somehow.

Another approach has been taken by Metafilter, For a one-time charge of $5, and after a one-week waiting period, those who sign up get complete use of the site, including the ability to post to the home page. Even before the week is up, the user can post comments. There are guidelines for posting. Metafilter is not a news site, but news articles are fair game.

I see that anonymity is protected by the use of a self-selected username. Metafilter requires payment of the $5 fee via PayPal, but after that a regular password is all that’s needed to log in. The one-week delay allows users to learn the customs of the site while waiting for full access. Parts of the site contain adwords or other advertisements.

Metafilter is a complex undertaking as revealed by their comprehensive FAQ page. Any site offering news, whether national or local, could take a similar but simpler approach.

Most likely the trolls (like rude or aggressive drivers) will always be with us, at least as long as we value anonymity. And we should:

“Today the man who is the real risk-taker is anonymous and nonheroic. He is the one trying to make institutions work.”— John William Ward


What an equivocating load of horse manure, Larry! Just kidding... You must be psychic, I've been pondering this for the past two weeks and had just about thought around to this point. Anonymity is very important in a small community.

I use both attributed and anonymous comms. because one can't make the harder points and not expect retribution on some level. Insiders with knowledge would be kicked out for speaking truth or detail. Innovators would be cut out from establishment resources. Also, others who depend on me for their projects, goals, community and livelihood would suffer if I said things :unacceptable to the gatekeepers of power. "Speak the truth, but leave immediately after." - Slovenian Proverb No anonymity no abject truth. Of course attributed dialog keeps things civil.

Speaking of civil, you can see how Civil Beat turns into a garden walled pr wonk fest. Time will tell if that sort of dialog has the depth to have real influence. No trolls, but no fire either.

Will explore the middle methods of anonymity with moderation and delayed set up steps you outline. Thanks for a well considered and presented piece on something of vital importance to the future.

Ah, you detected what I had in mind before writing this.

Yes, it was suggested by my visit to Civil Beat this morning after a long absence. I was glad to see it is now black-and-white and I can actually read it more quickly than before, when it was black-on-gray. Many format improvements. And the articles and at least some comments were visible even to a freeloader (that is, ordinary member of the public) like me.

I noticed a PR person on salary to comment, and there are others paid to comment there. It's a great opportunity for them and their companies. Civil Beat could charge them double, a corporate rate.

The comment section on the Attleboro Sun Chronicle was abruptly shut off a few months ago. This was no doubt directly related to comments posted to articles regarding Attleboro Police overtime fraud. Names were named in the comment section. The Sun Chronicle is very brave about naming names and addresses of anyone allegedly committing any infraction big or small. Not in this case of course. They would not name the names of officers or supervisors involved. They deserve the same fame that everyone else is afforded by the Sun Chronicle, no more, no less.

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