My print column from the previous Sunday was about the scourage of the media industry — anonymous online comments. Most in my business never liked the practice. Hopefully, this week, we’ll be rid of it. I had a lot of good feedback on this one from people absolutely tired of that anonymous craptossing contest. Here goes.
Dear Anonymous Online Commenter,
First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Madison Taylor and I’m the editor of the Times-News.
See? How hard was that? Not very — at least from my end anyway. I politely offered a name and a place of employment. I live in Burlington, by the way. I am not ashamed of any of these things — well, not usually. But I tend to own up to it when I am.
And I’ll even go a little further. My name is Madison Taylor of Burlington and I’m the editor of the Times-News and I’m 52 years old. As such I’d like to state for the record that a number of you anonymous online commenters who populate our newspaper’s website are pretty cowardly. Some are jerks. A handful are cowardly jerks.
See how easy it is to state a strong opinion and put a name behind it?
That seems to be a problem for some who post comments on sites operated by news organizations. Roger Creasy, who heads our interactive programs here at the Times-News, tells me that on many other websites normal people converse sans real names and do so without rancor, without hostility, without profanity, without racism, without sexism, without misogyny, without venom, without bile, without hatred, bigotry, obscenity and lame off-color jokes. I hear a few can even form complete sentences.
Yes, in this world there are apparently pleasant anonymous commenters — people who get along reasonably well together, make salient and thought-provoking observations and subtly kick out those who refuse to play nice. I believe this to be true because Roger says so. He’s among the most honest people I know.
But he also tells me this isn’t the case on news sites. In what has to be one of the most depressing developments in my history with this business, sites operated by newspapers and TV stations are vast territories of free-range meanness based on everything from politics to place of birth to personal appearance in an accompanying photograph. And because our sites were desperate years ago to build an audience, we allowed people to cloak themselves in anonymity and opened this rather appalling door into this bleakness of the human spirit.
Bad on us. We have much higher standards for our print product. Our stories don’t use anonymous sources and letters to the Open Forum have to be signed with a name and place of residence before we’ll publish them.
In fairness, though, many more optimistic media editors had envisioned the type of situation Roger speaks of — a cyberland of thinking people bound by a common cause to have intelligent discussion and debate about the issues of the day. More cynical media leaders had a darker view. They predicted an apocalypse generated by the more sinister natures of mankind when allowed to hide and lob grenades. They foresaw long legal entanglements and the destruction of the information industry.
The truth, as is often the case, collides somewhere toward the middle. Some anonymous posting actually allows people to make important comments without fear of retribution from employers, government, law enforcement or even friends. And anonymous comments certainly haven’t destroyed civilization, merely eroded it to a shameful level. I’ll note a story by the Associated Press last week concerning a new poll indicating that young people have become jaded by racist and sexist slurs they read online and no longer see them as offensive. Political correctness needed to swing back a touch, but not that far.
All of this blather, though is merely prelude to some actual news. Starting this month — and the tentative date is Oct. 11, the Times-News will get rid of the third-party commenting tool now in use on thetimesnews.com. The blogging system that allowed people to sign up without giving a name will be gone. The function that allowed people to comment on stories without stating who they really are won’t be there, either. The story commenting function will be replaced by one connected to Facebook, the social networking behemoth.
After the new system starts, people will need a Facebook account to post comments online. It will not give anyone access to your Facebook information or the ability to see what is on your profile wall if your account is private. Users will have to provide their name. Sure, there are some ways to skirt the system, but it’s a lot more difficult and hopefully not worth the time or risking the wrath of Facebook.
So I suppose this is a Dear John or Jane letter of sorts. Suffice it to say I’m not all that choked up about saying goodbye. Glad I never met you. And if I did, please don’t tell me. I’m better off not knowing.
But I am very eager to say hello to those who are interested in posting comments on our website under their real names. That thing about creating a cyberland of thinking people bound by a common cause to have intelligent discussion and debate about the issues of the day may be within our reach after all.
Call me an optimist.