Reader Comments: How did all this civil debate happen?

by Carl Natale on February 29, 2012

Flickr photo by Amanda Wood

Because people never are rude when they're using their real identities

The Lewiston Sun Journal may have struck a huge blow for civility on the Internet. Last year they required commenters to disclose their real names. That meant readers had to register and wait for a LSJ staff member to call them. This was meant to discourage nasty people from saying mean things on the newspaper website.

Now the newspaper’s editors say civility has returned to reader comments but at a cost:

“The Sun Journal has spurred better online debate, but among fewer voices. What should happen now with its policy toward online comments?”

To their credit, Anthony Ronzio and Pattie Reaves say that this better online debate may be a less valuable debate. So they’re trying to increase the number of commenters without hurting the quality of debate. In other words, they don’t want anyone “saying things outside any definition of decorum.”

Some questions first

The column used to celebrate the respectful debate left me with a few questions:

  • Does the Sun Journal moderate comments? Is anyone checking to make sure the comments are indeed respectful and civil?
  • Despite the real identities, do readers and/or commenters still complain about any comments? I’m guessing there are still some issues that need a referee.
  • What exactly do the editors think they’re missing? I’m just wondering there is something specific (besides volume of comments) that they think is not coming out in this respectful reader comments system.

I think the answers will reveal that there is still some uncivil comments being posted. Of course it depends on who’s definition of civility you use. Perception of what is appropriate to post online is a very personal concept. So I’m sure there are competing definitions of what is respectful. But I suspect it isn’t a big problem here.

Real identities do not improve the quality of reader comments

It simply doesn’t work that way. People who are insulting jerks will express their nastiness online whether they are anonymous or not:

“I’ve seen people who use their real identities be real jerks on Twitter and Facebook. They make uncivil comments when they’re using those media to broadcast their thoughts. They aren’t having conversations when doing it.”

But didn’t the Sun Journal just prove that the requirement of posting as real people create a forum of civil and respectful debate?

Right effect. Wrong cause.

The reason why debate is so nice is that there are fewer people writing comments.  In a nutshell, people tend to get along better in small groups. And it’s a small group because the Sun Journal has created a fair amount of friction to commenting. To leave a comment on a Sun Journal story, you need to:

  1. Register
  2. Wait for someone to find out if you are who you are
  3. Write a comment

That’s a lot of resistance on the Internet. It’s laziness not fear that’s making comments more civil.

Honestly, I don’t see the problem with having fewer commenters. Even in the more liberal systems, most of the contributing is done by a small number of contributors. Think of them as the 1 Percent. And the Sun Journal should be careful about how it spreads the wealth.

How to make reader comments more civil

If you are bound and determined to bring some civility and respect to reader comments, there are some things that will help.

Small groups and discussions will do wonders for the discussion. If you hand someone a bullhorn in a crowded area, don’t expect a lot of Kumbaya moments.

Communities help. And I’m talking true communities of interest. Don’t just call your readership a community. It needs to be based upon common interest, interaction and real-world connections.

Finally, recognize that nothing will be perfect. It’s best to understand what you want to gain from reader comments and concentrate on narrow goals. Accept you won’t please everyone.


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