Brent Boyer: Addressing online civility
May 13, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs resident Paul Hughes' letter to the editor ("Require identities") in Wednesday's paper certainly was well-timed. Web anonymity and civility is a subject being debated in news organizations and on websites across the country. And it's an issue I'm reminded of daily as I help maintain the editorial content on http://www.steamboatpilot.com and approve user verification requests for folks who want to jump into the online fray.
We're approaching two years since we changed the online user verification process for http://www.steamboatpilot.com. Before the August 2008 change, anyone with a valid e-mail address could create an account and post ad nauseam. Inappropriate comments and posters could be removed from the site, but they could return time and again by simply creating a new account with a new e-mail address.
We spent a lot of time two years ago debating whether to require the identities of all online commenters. The goal for taking such a step was simple: to foster civility on our website, which had become a place where anonymous posters hurled insults and accusations back and forth like kids on a school playground. Thoughtful discussions about important local and national issues quickly spiraled into off-topic debate among a limited number of posters.
Instead of requiring posters to comment with their real names, the management team at the Pilot & Today agreed to somewhat of a compromise. In hindsight, perhaps it can best be described as a first step.
Beginning in August 2008, we simply required that online commenters provide us their real names, so that we could verify their identity before giving them permission to post to our site. In so doing, we created a system in which abusive posters could be banned and prevented from returning again under the guise of another e-mail address. At the time, I also believed that if a poster knew that we knew who they were, they might be more likely to engage in civil online dialogue.
As we approach the two-year anniversary of that change, I find myself asking, "Did we accomplish our goals?"
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Increasingly, my answer is "No."
So what are the next steps? As I alluded at the beginning of this column, we're hardly alone in grappling with this issue.
In the April 19 edition of The Wall Street Journal, a column titled "Is Internet Civility an Oxymoron?" by L. Gordon Crovitz addressed the same issue. Early in his piece, Crovitz painted a pretty accurate picture of many Web forums:
"The common practice is for news and other Web sites to treat all comments equally, whether made anonymously or using real names, via obscenities or reasoned debate. The hope was that people would be civil. Instead, many comment areas have become wastelands of attacks and insults," Crovitz wrote.
Later, Crovitz hit the nail on the head:
"The Web is a great liberator, giving millions of people the ability to offer opinions with the ease once reserved for, say, newspaper columnists. The downside is that comment overload and anonymity create more noise than wisdom.
"Since it's now clear human nature hasn't improved with the transition to digital media, we should cheer efforts to make it as easy for readers to decide which commenters to trust as it has become to post the comments."
Crovitz was referring to the comment systems being employed by an increasing number of sites that allow other readers to essentially determine the value of a comment, and thus affect that comment's placement on the web page.
Of course, there are other options, too. Some websites display the comments of non-anonymous posters first, essentially rewarding those who choose to put their names next to their opinions. Others require additional mouse clicks to uncover the posts made by anonymous users. Still others allow the news organization, as well as its online readers, to rate individual commenters, with higher rated comments getting better placement on the page.
And, obviously, there is the option of requiring all users to use their real names.
The bottom line is that I believe readers are much more likely to think twice about what they write when their name is attached to it. The cloak of anonymity can tempt us to say and write things we otherwise wouldn't dare utter in public.
But I'm also sympathetic to the reasons many folks in a smaller community like Steamboat Springs give for the importance of maintaining anonymity. Retribution — be it from employers, friends, neighbors or others — often is repeated as a concern that keeps some residents from speaking out on any number of issues.
So where do we go from here?
The short answer: I'm not sure.
The long answer: I'm increasingly supportive of requiring posters to reveal their identities when commenting on articles.
More than anything, I want http://www.steamboatpilot.com to continue to be a forum for fellow members of the community to speak out about issues important to us. And that means I want to know what you think.
Those of you who are active http://www.steamboatpilot.com posters, would you stop posting if you were required to use your name?
For those who don't post comments to our website, would you be more likely to do so if it was on a forum that fostered more civil dialogue among neighbors?
Give me a call at 871-4221 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.