We love our commentariat, and, of course, the Harpies all met—first on-line and then IRL—because we were commenters on Jezebel. But the truth is, as Michelle pointed out in her post earlier this month on the Awl: “Internet commenters (and I’ve been one! Still am!) are assholes; on this I think we can all agree.”
More and more sites—especially news sites—are figuring this out, which prompted a story today on CNN whose headline read: “News sites reining in nasty user comments:”
User comments on news sites, while vital to interactive storytelling in the digital age, often read like scribblings on a bathroom stall: anonymous, offensive and full of hate.
Rants…prompted a Buffalo, New York, newspaper to discontinue anonymous user comments on its website as of August 2. Commenters will be required to register with their name, city of residence and phone number — more information than most news sites require — and staffers will attempt to verify their identities.
PhDork once described the comments section of both the (liberal) New York Daily News and the (not-liberal) New York Post as being the intellectual equivalent of “monkeys flinging their poo at the wall.” Even in a large city like New York, the vitriol—racist, misogynist, neighbor-on-neighbor hateration—in the comments on local news stories can be astonishing. In smaller cities, it’s even more likely that you know the person flaming you anonymously, or snarking on you, your family, your church, your home, etc. Things can spin out of control pretty quickly. So if a news site—or any site—is interested in maintaining some reasonable level of civil discourse, what are they to do?
The debate over inflammatory online comments always seems to boil down to whether users should be allowed to post anonymously….
“With no name attached, the commenters basically wear a hood and swing a sharp axe,” said Robert Steele, director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at Depauw University. “The intent in allowing and encouraging these comments online is to increase page views and time spent on the site. It’s a business motivation.” (ed: O hai, Nick Denton.)
I suspect that if everyone had to attach his or her real name, the comments would be a very quiet place indeed. There’s a hell of a lot we’ll share anonymously—good, positive, supportive or enlightening stuff—that we wouldn’t tell a roomful of strangers if someone handed us a microphone. And of course, most trolls, or just plain internet assholes, wouldn’t spew their vitriol unless they can hide behind anonymity. There’s also the issue of safety. There are a lot of wackos out there and the internet—Google especially—will expose you to way more of them than your meat-space will. Would you risk letting everyone know who you are and where you live?
Some Buffalo News users have already expressed concerns for their personal safety if their names and hometowns are posted along with their comments.
Wrote one user, “I’d rather not take the chance that some lunatic does not agree with my point of view and tries to tell me that face to face.”
This actually happened to me last year. I had posted some comments on a Jezebel article about a Modern Love column, pointing out the rather obvious creepiness and misogyny in the author’s essay. The author of the column saw my comments, and while they weren’t especially mean or snarky—or different from other commenters’ comments on the article—he took offense and googled my commenter name, which led him to this site. He then launched a barrage of hostile and vaguely threatening e-mails and comments. I ignored the e-mails and blocked him from the site, figuring there was nothing to be gained by engaging with someone so obviously hostile—and with a prison record (which was one of the things mentioned in the Modern Love essay). When I didn’t respond, the e-mails continued, becoming even more unhinged, and the dude began copying them to the other Harpies, and even Anna Holmes, the editor-in-chief of Jezebel.
Creepy dude’s e-mails and general creepiness were alarming enough that I consulted with a former prosector who specialized in stalking crimes. His advice, which I’ll pass along in case you ever need it, was to send a brief e-mail saying “I’ve read your e-mails. I do not wish to have any further contact with you. I ask that you not e-mail me again.” Once that’s done, if the dude continued to send them, I would have some recourse under New York’s anti-stalking laws. I did send that message, and the e-mails immediately stopped (possibly because, having been in the system, the dude recognized what I was doing by sending that e-mail.) But it was very disturbing at the time, and I was extremely grateful that the creepy dude only knew me as BeckySharper, and that there was no way he could connect my commenter name with my real one.
Personally, I’m in favor of open anonymous commenting, provided it’s moderated. I think there’s more benefit than risk. It’s easy enough for a site to block trolls or ban commenters who continuously violate commenting policy—we have certainly done our fair share of both here—but I suspect most sites don’t have enough staff to handle the job, especially local newspapers, which are run by skeleton crews these days anyhow.
Just out of curiosity, how many of you would comment under your own names—on this site or any other? Is there an ideal way to handle commenting or do we just need to make it up on a case-by-case basis? Go ahead and…y’know…comment…