As some of you may know, anonymity, particularly anonymity in comments at The Mercury web site, is a bit of a hot button issue for me.
To their credit, the company elders are still wrestling with best way to get the best comments, the best insights and the best discussion out of our readers who, evidence suggests, have an awful lot to say.
Twenty minutes ago, I finished participating in a chat on Twitter about ways we could improve.
In the interests of transparency, I have provided the link here to where that discussion has been preserved. If you care about this issue, I invite you to read it.
To be clear, I am an unabashed advocate for getting rid of anonymous commenting, but I am in the minority I think.
I understand the value:
1) News and views from others who might otherwise fear retribution.
2) Helpful news tips and ways to improve a story.
3) Hey, Hamilton and Madison wrote the Federalist Papers that way.
4) Sometimes, removing the who from an idea gives it better consideration as it removes a perceived agenda.
And you know what? I agree with all those reasons.
My problem? That good is far, far, far outweighed by the overwhelming nastiness and personal attacks that can occur only when you don't have to take responsibility for your words.
At The Mercury, we "moderate" comments, which not all papers do. That means someone has to approve comments before they get posted and yes, (revelation No. 2) I am one of those people who is allowed to approve or delete comments.
And contrary to what you might think, I am one of the most liberal about it.
We also have a policy of deleting comments if people complain about abuse, although some of our "public figures," i.e. elected officials, candidates, appointed officials, etc. don't always realize that comments critical of them are fairer game than for others.
But even that can get out of hand.
This June, anonymous comments at one JRC's Connecticut papers, the Torrington Register-Citizen, got so bad that one schools superintendent resigned over what was posted there.
(NO! I am not advocating this or trying to give anyone any ideas.)
Here is a link to our coverage of that issue and the discussion that followed.
But to the matter at hand, in this discussion there were a couple of useful suggestions that I thought I might share and see what you think:
1) Move anonymous comments to the bottom of the column and allow those who self-identify to take pride of place at the top.
2) Have a regular "best comments" feature.
3) Have reporters "engage" more with commenters on the web site. (Some of you know I already to this to some extent.)
4) Offer (non-anonymous) blog space to those who provide the most thoughtful comments.
5) Use Facebook or a similar system now being tested at one of our Connecticut papers, that encourages self-identifying commenting.
Most sites which have removed anonymous comments report much less traffic, but improved quality and return visits to their sites.
Certainly, newspapers that are struggling with circulation should be expected to exercise caution when doing anything that might reduce eyeballs on their web sites.
In some ways, the anonymous comments and Sound Off is akin to the axiom that a picture of a fire or twisted metal from a car crash sells papers. It is a guilty pleasure.
The problem is that unlike buying the paper, participating in beating someone up anonymously is not a consequence-free activity and, I think, should make you feel much more guilty.
In the long run, in my humble opinion, better comments trumps more comments every time, particularly if it builds loyalty and useful conversation, instead of just colorful conversation, which have in abundance in this town.
But it's not my opinion I'm after.
I already know what that is.
If you have opinions on this, post them or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will report on the results in future posts.
I know this blog is new and does not get a lot of traffic, but this may be your best chance to have an impact on how on-line comments are handled at The Mercury web site, so have a go, let us know and share it with others so we can start a useful discussion.
P.S. An update! Click here to read about how The New York Times just re-vamped how comments are posted there.