Why Web Newspapers Stink #3

Why Online Newspapers Stink #3

Newspapers went on the Web in the 1980s and 90s as HTML versions of the inky originals. Publishers decided that “going interactive” meant allowing readers to post comments on articles and columns. Editors had heard from habitués of The Well, bulletinboards, and chat rooms that nicknames were de rigueur, and use of real names inhibited frankness. They acted accordingly and, after the predictable gush of obscenity, profanity, and racism, some newspapers decided to forgo reader comments.

Other papers must have decided that this segment of online readership was a valuable asset, worthy of promotion on their websites. Some publishers objected to unpaid commercial speech, and demanded that commenters register with email addresses in an attempt to avoid spam, but kept the “tradition” of pseudonyms. Anonymous comments were locked in.

Perhaps online newspapers or writers get paid per comment rather than per page-view, or publishers want to provide ammunition for advocates of improved mental health care. At most cellulose-based papers, an increase in “Letters to the Editor” is usually not considered a good thing, since most of those letters are uncomplimentary, often in crayon, and may be tied to rocks thrown through newsroom windows.

Assumed names and avatar symbols are 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.” Like the hoods and masks of nightriders, assumed online names allow monomaniacs, schemers, and childish shock-lovers  —  trolls, astroturferssockpuppets, strawman sockpuppets  — to turn online newspaper comment functions into walls for digital graffiti. Profanity can now be filtered out automatically, so irrelevant reader comments brim with racism and other hate speech.

Can you imagine a newspaper that would publish “Letters to the Editor” under pseudonyms, without obtaining an address and phone number, without a call to verify the identity of the author, and a verbal verification of letter authorship? Of course not (Ann Landers doesn’t count). Why should 21st century newspapers do things differently on the Web? A dysfunctional “tradition” out of step with older traditions of journalistic responsibility and simple readability? It is well past time to insist on similar standards for online newspaper comments.

Now that newspapers have loosely aggregated their own blogs, the number of anonymous, lunatic letters has increased. Newspapers do not understand hypertext; a grasp of metadata is asking too much. Perhaps plain talk will work.

Publishers and editors: Google and Technorati searches display those lunatic online comments tagged with the name of your newspaper.  And they will continue to do that, forever. Think about it.

 Image by Mike Licht.

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