Monday, December 20, 2010

What about those annoying online comments?

Got this e-mail from Scott Robinson, director of the Tuscarawas County United Way and longtime broadcaster:

"Would love to hear your take on the new (T-R online commenting) policy? How does it take a signature to get a letter to the editor published but people can hide behind a nickname of their choosing while trashing people, organizations, etc. all with no consequences. I'm all for the first amendment. Just make people use their real name. Can it get any simpler than that?"

Suffice it to say that allowing anonymous comments on published stories and commentaries is the bane of news sites everywhere. Simply put, they're a pain in the ass.

Still, they help drive traffic to a content provider's site and to not allow them probably would have a terribly negative impact on the number of page views, etc. So, they are a necessary evil, I guess.

Requiring commentators to sign their real names seems simple enough, but verification is nearly impossible and therein lies the problem. When the T-R first began taking e-mail comments from readers we required real names. But it didn't take long before an imposter, who sent a seemingly innocent e-mail for publication under someone else's name, forced us to dump the idea.

When we started "30 Seconds" back in 1991 or 1992, we knew that careful editing of the called-in comments was a key to its success. Certainly there were comments that slipped through the cracks, but for the most part, the vitriol so apparent today online never marked "30 Seconds."

So, the problem, I think, lies in the editing process. Most online content providers allow a free-for-all on their sites by online commentators. The really bad ones aren't stricken from the record until after they are posted.

And the T-R is not the only violator -- so are most other sites.

Connie Schultz, the Plain Dealer's award-winning columnist, takes heat from online commentators even when she's writing about something as innocuous as "Why the food bank needs our help."

As she notes in the comment section, "A number of comments were removed because they had nothing to do with the topic. Hunger is a nonpartisan issue, so please let's keep it that way in today's online discussion. This is not the forum to attack various politicians, or one another, in the comments."

Perhaps the key for news sites is to follow the New York Times' lead. The Times reviews every online comment BEFORE they are posted and then singles out -- highlights -- the more thoughtful posts. And the English language is not damaged in the process.

But that would require, of course, additional staffing, which most online sites, especially those whose core business is putting ink on paper, are not willing to do.

And on the T-R site, there is a least one online commentator who uses his real name. But that fact doesn't necessarily guarantee thoughtful and insightful commentary. Under a discussion of calamity days, he concluded that they are "nothing more than unscheduled paid vacation days for teachers."

Intolerant for sure and wrong to boot.

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Please feel free to leave comments on my Facebook page. I know the commenting process on the blog can be tedious.

And, isn't it rather ironic that the immensely popular Facebook wouldn't work if people didn't use their real names?

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It's going to get hectic here momentarily. So, before I forget, merry Christmas.


Anonymous said...

pretty good column as usual, how much longer will paper newspapers be in existence anyway, capitalize Merry the next time otherwise your editor did a great job

cowboy54 said...

Ah, the ongoing debate about anonymous comments. In my experience, the most annoyed (usually public officials) don't like the comments because they make people think.... and they almost always have some facts behind them. As to profanity, most sites have word filters and also allow abuse reports which get the comments removed.

Dick Farrell said...

Thanks, prr6100, but in this case, "merry" doesn't deserve a cap M.