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On comments

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The news industry has entered another round of comment concerns. The New York Times just implemented a new “Trusted Commenter” system that requires a connection to your Facebook account. Gannett announced last month that they’re switching their comments system to one that uses Facebook Connect.

And the college media listserv had a recent round of e-mails about the advantages of using Facebook log-ins for comments.

There are obvious arguments for going with the FB log-in. People are less likely to be nasty, brutish or mean when their “real” names are associated with what they say in a comment section. Facebook log-ins are an easy turn-key method of authenticating user names. And the FB log-in is becoming ubiquitous. Randy Lovely, senior vice president of news & audience development, doesn’t mention Gannett’s company-wide shift in an online chat about the new system, but admits that 81 percent of adults in their area have Facebook accounts.

I certainly understand the desire to have a community of commenters who are civil and reasonable in their comments about contentious issues of the day. And I can’t imagine the amount of time it takes a site like the New York Times to wade through comments every day.

But, as I’ve written before, I really don’t agree with the push to associate “authentic” real-world identities with comments on a web site.

First, these papers are outsourcing the “quality” of their site’s community to a third-party. And there are people who have legitimate issues with the entire Facebook platform, who don’t have accounts with FB and don’t want them. My parents, for instance, don’t have Facebook accounts. Should they be required to create such accounts to comment on a news site?

The second concern is a legitimate concern some people have about connecting their IRL (In Real Life) identity with comments they make online. I don’t have to go through all the hypothetical examples that have been hashed and rehashed in this arena, but suffice to say that there can be real implications for people if they say something negative about a controversial topic. So their voices will be effectively muzzled by “authenticity.”

You may think that’s a small price to pay for ridding comments sections of obvious trolls and boors who don’t know how to be polite. I’m not so sure. And I’m not so sure I’d be comfortable risking someone’s job because of something they said in a comment section.

There is a long history of pseudonymous commentary in American life. Some of it good, some of it bad. But I always thought the point was that we suffered the bad because the same rules protected the good.

In many ways, I keep coming back to what long-time blogger Anil Dash wrote earlier this year when this topic got hot again. Cultivating an online community of commenters is work, sometimes hard work. And Facebook Connect is a cop-out. And adopting the “authentic identity” paradigm just means the trolls have won.

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