Anonymity in reader comments has value

Doug Feaver, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, has a great column up about comments and the value of allowing them to not only be anonymous but unmoderated (other than by fellow commenters). This is a case I have tried — and continue to try — to make at the Globe and Mail, where I am the communities editor.

When I first took the job (and since) one of the first things people said was that our comments were unrelentingly bad and that we should require people to use their real names. I try to point out that while we are working on a number of ways to improve the tone of our comments, it’s virtually impossible to actually guarantee that someone has provided their real name, unless we ask them for their driver’s licence or credit card or SIN number, in which case we would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (I think in many cases what people want are real-*sounding* names, as opposed to obvious pseudonyms).

But in addition to that, I think the anonymity issue is largely a red herring, and that in fact there are many virtues to offering it, some of which I tried to outline in this post. Here’s a great excerpt from the Feaver piece:

I believe that it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a different context, “Man is least in himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Are comments valuable or a waste of time? Yes

A column by Judith Timson in the Globe and Mail this week got me thinking again (not like I ever really stop) about comments on blogs and news stories and other places, and the value that they bring. Judith’s column was in many ways a lament for the death of civilized discourse, and a criticism of the no-holds-barred comments that appear at many media sites — including the Globe’s. Not surprisingly, she mentioned the book Snark, by David Denby, which is concerned with the same decline-of-civilization-as-we-know-it kind of argument. As you’ve probably guessed already, I disagree with that view.

In many ways, comments are like version 1.0 of community — the lowest common denominator of community, at least for a mainstream media site like the Globe’s. You can post a comment, never really engage with anyone, say whatever you want and not have to reap the consequences (at least with an anonymous system like we have, which I have defended before for a variety of reasons), and so on.

I would be the first to admit that our comments don’t always achieve the level of discourse that I — and the Globe as a whole — would like them to. We get a lot of “drive-bys,” as I like to call them, in which people just spray-paint offensive comments or insults directed at the subjects of a particular story, or in many cases the writers. We are working on ways of dealing with that kind of thing (as I’ve described in previous posts on the subject), including comment voting and other “reputation management” tools that I hope will allow our community of readers to promote the positive and de-emphasize the negative. But I think there is an important principle attached to having comments, and not just having them but actively engaging with readers who make honest and well-intentioned comments.

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Comments: Messy and flawed, but valuable

I’m cross-posting this from my blog at the Globe and Mail, as part of my ongoing attempt to talk about what we’re trying to do at the newspaper when it comes to comments, blogs, forums and other ways that we interact with readers. Feel free to respond here or at the Globe blog — where (naturally) I encourage you to read the comments 🙂

In my new role as the Globe’s “communities editor” (you can find more details on that in this post), I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about comments — that is, reader comments on news stories, columns, blog posts, etc. The Globe and Mail was the first major newspaper in North America to allow comments on every news story when it launched the feature in 2005, and judging by the ever-increasing numbers of people who use them, they are hugely popular. On some major news stories, we can sometimes get as many as 500 comments.

Comments aren’t popular with everyone, however. Some readers (and even some Globe and Mail staffers, to be honest) complain that too often our comment threads are filled with what might charitably be called “noise” — everything from bad spelling and grammar all the way up to partisan political in-fighting, ad hominem attacks and all-around rude and boorish behaviour. Some say they don’t really care what most people think about a topic, and don’t see the value in having public comments on stories at all.

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Things just got tough for Disqus

One of the announcements that came out of the TechStars event today was that Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, has acquired the hosted blog-comment service Intense Debate for an undisclosed amount. You can read WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s thoughts about it, as well as those of Automattic CEO Toni Schneider and Intense Debate co-founder Jon Fox, and you can also read some comments from Daniel Ha, the founder of Disqus, the hosted blog-comment service that is probably Intense Debate’s single biggest competitor in the comment-o-sphere.

In his blog post and in comments made to Mashable’s Adam Ostrow about the deal, Daniel is very diplomatic about the acquisition, saying it was a good move for Automattic and Intense Debate, and that “I think Disqus (and others in the space) will continue to work harder on offerings for users of WordPress and the many other platforms.” One of the main financial backers behind Disqus — Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures — took the same line in comments to me via Twitter. “Its great for the 3rd party comment system market,” he said. “It validates the category.”

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David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

This doesn’t really have much to do with the Web or new media or anything like that, but I feel compelled to take some notice of the fact that David Foster Wallace is dead. His wife apparently came home Friday night to find that the author had hung himself in their home in Claremont, California. He was 46. It’s not clear whether Wallace was depressed or dealing with any other issues before his death, but suicide and various forms of mental illness, including depression, were a recurring theme throughout much of his work (after his first novel got critical acclaim in the late 1980s, he checked into a hospital and asked to be put on suicide watch, and suicide also appears in a commencement speech that he gave at Kenyon University in 2005).

In one short story he wrote, called Good Old Neon, the narrator — a well-liked, high-school sports star turned advertising executive — recalls feeling like a fraud all of his life and eventually kills himself (you can read some of it through Google Books). Wallace described the story as his attempt to understand a high-school classmate of his, a well-liked sports hero who later committed suicide. Wallace himself was a sports star of sorts in high school, a competitive junior tennis player. Tennis forms one of the backdrops for Infinite Jest, probably his best-known work, a sprawling 1,000-page novel about (among many other things) the life of a young man living at an exclusive tennis training academy.

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