The New York Times website is permitting reader comments on some articles and columns. The Gray Old Lady is creating a Comment Desk where staffers screen all reader submissions before posting them.
The plain truth about Interactive Web Journalism: most reader comments are unrelated to the articles; many are virulently racist. Why? Because outright profanity is sure to be filtered out, disturbed readers submit shock content about race instead. This is certainly the situation with reader comments on the Washington Post website.
The Times, like most papers on the Web, lists “guidelines requiring that a comment be coherent, on point, not obscene or abusive, and not a personal attack,” then publishes all of the above to the Web save the obscenity.
What makes this possible? As Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt puts it, “Though editors have mixed feelings about it, The Times has so far bowed to Web custom by allowing readers to use screen names, as long as they don’t claim to be Thomas Paine, Condi Rice or a famous porn star.”
Web communication began as if it were CB radio, where assumed “handles” replace names. Anonymity makes sense if you are misusing CB radio to illegally evade speed traps; it makes no sense on the Web but we have stuck with it.
This anonymity of assumed names and avatar symbols is said to foster a community of frank and open discussion, allowing shy people to speak their minds due to the Online Disinhibition Effect. “Disinhibition” is, of course, a key term in medical and socialwork literature on “Dutch Courage.”
Anonymous Web communication enables the proliferation of irrelevance, not irreverence or intimacy. It allows “Trolls” to contrive controversy for the mere pleasure of instigating it. It turns newspaper Websites into scrawled restroom walls.
What newspaper would print a “Letter to the Editor” without confirming the identity of the letter-writer? It is time to apply the same standard to reader replies on the Web.
There are plenty of interactive Web fantasy games, and even Websites for psychotherapy. Let the “Trolls” go to those instead of newspaper sites. It is time for Interactive Web Journalism to grow up and require real people to use their real names.
Image by Mike Licht.