Community / ethics / industry news / management / social media

One way not to do online comments (rant)

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Over the life of this blog, and in my studies of the online news business since 2001, I have seen so many efforts to rein in online comments that my eyes roll when I see a new round of pearl-clutching from news editors and publishers about how nasty commenters are on their web sites.

But of all the efforts, this effort by the Sun Chronicle in Massachusetts has got to be the prize-winner for ways to kill off a commenting community. The SC not only wants readers to register to comment using their real names and addresses, they want users to give up credit card information and pay a one-time fee of 99 cents for the privilege!

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.

Look, I can understand the desire to have a well-functioning, civil community of readers commenting on your web site. I can even understand the desire to have people use their real names when commenting (although I disagree). But demanding that readers give up sensitive financial information and then billing them just to leave a comment on a web site is … well, I can’t use the words I’m considering right now on a family web site.

Of course, if the Sun Chronicle were serious about wanting comments, they could use Facebook Connect. It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but it would tie a comment to a user’s online identity in a more meaningful way and discourage or eliminate “anonymous” comments (pro-tip: when a user puts a name – even a made-up name – in a comment box, it’s not technically “anonymous,” but “pseudonymous”).

More likely, this change will drop the Sun Chronicle’s commenting community to near zero. And if I were an enterprising web denizen in one of the paper’s communities, I’d be busy putting up a web site that allows users to comment on SC-related articles without registering. Just provide headline links to SC stories in blog posts and allow comments on those posts. No need to steal content.

I’ve often gotten the vibe that a vast number of news media professionals hate comments, and would rather not deal with them at all. After all, people on the Internet can be real jackasses when their name is not associated with what they write.

But shutting off comments on your site – or trying to get people to pay to do so – is no real solution. It just drives people to other places on the Internet where they can comment without fearing for their jobs, or their social status, or whatever.

Last year, Va. Tech’s Collegiate Times student newspaper went through a similar type of situation. A campus committee was dismayed that there were racist comments showing up in the comments on the Collegiate Times’ web site. So the committee’s solution was to try to get the news org. to stop allowing anonymous comments by cutting off university funding.

Brilliant!

No mention of, you know, actually dealing with the disgusting underbelly of racism that brings these comments out. Just sweep the problem under the rug so the campus community looks pristine.

The truth of the matter is that managing an online community of commenters is work. It’s like tending a garden. If you don’t put in the work to root out the weeds (abusive commenters), you won’t get the vegetables (cogent commenters) to flourish.

The Sun Chronicle‘s recently announced policy roots out the weeds by digging up the entire garden.

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