Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Anonymity Debate, Part III: In Opposition

For some people the matter of taking personal responsibility for what you say is a simple matter of integrity.

You say what you want to say to someone’s face, and damn the consequences, or don’t say it at all.

But 47 years in, I’ve managed to figure out that life is not simple.

If several years ago, for example, I had written some of the things I have most recently about the company that owns The Mercury, it’s flaws (read our web site) and our attempts to improve, I would have been looking for another job.

Living the rule of simplicity, I would have had to live with those consequences; but so too would my family. What if we lost our house after I lost my job because I had to stand up and declare the emperor had no clothes?

What if I couldn’t find another? What if my son couldn’t go to college because I had to be a big shot? Then they would have been living with the consequences of actions they never took.

Luckily, our new leadership does not mind a little dirty laundry being on display, especially when it means input on how we could improve our product in what any master of understatement would call a “very challenging market for newspapers.”

Which means that although I am encouraged now to post blog posts like this with my name attached; and to engage our community in a matter of some complexity, I was not always free to do so.

All of which is to say although I now live by a rule of signing my name to all Internet correspondence, what’s good for this goose is not good for every gander.

But this is a strange way to introduce a post in opposition to anonymity.

That’s because the problem is that as high sounding as all the above sounds, the reality here on the ground is that the anonymous posting on The Mercury web site is often venal, often uninformed, and much too often cruel simply because anonymity allows it to be so.

Thus our dilemma and our third and (who knows? last?) installment on this subject, in which our readers of a certain mind set “Sound Off” about the need to stand up and be counted when sharing your opinion.

Unlike yesterday’s post, which contained a swirl of nuance about why anonymity, while sometimes regrettable, is ultimately preferred, those who oppose hiding behind a fake name have two basic reasons:

1)      It is dishonorable.
2)      It has the potential to do real harm.

(Curiously, a few of them posted, by accident no doubt, without using their full names.)

Reason 1: Say it to Their Face

There was no shortage of readers, many of them commenting on The Mercury’s Facebook page, who took this stand-up view.

And although this discussion was begun and primarily remains about anonymity on-line, many readers also took the liberty of extending the discussion to our “Sound Off” column, in which people phone in their complaints or, occasionally, praise and advice and we publish them in the good old fashioned newspaper.

(Although, it's worth noting that many of the worst abuses of anonymity occur beneath the web site posting of the Sound Off comments.)

One of them was Ron Downie, former Pottstown School Board member and Pottstown Borough Council member and currently the head of the Pottstown Borough Authority.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, or better yet, The Mercury should have been ashamed of itself for a long time, every since Sound Off started,” he wrote to me in an e-mail, softening the blow by adding that  what the world needs is more blogs like the one my father writes

(What can I say? Telling it like (we think) it is must run in the family.)

Fred Remelius, a member of the Pottsgrove School Board, weighed in on the same subject on Facebook: I have found that the majority of comments in the Pottstown Mercury’s Sound Off section are either downright mean, degrading, rude, unproductive, or simply display a complete lack of any factual knowledge of the topic being discussed,” he opined. “Reasonable people rarely comment in the Sound Off.”

“Fred, I could not agree more,” Jeff Bush posted on Facebook. “I feel the section puts Pottstown in a bad light. It has no journalistic value. If you have something of value to say, put it in writing and sign your name.”

Charles Zerr of Douglassville posted, If you don’t have the guts to say it and show who you are. Then don’t bother.”

 “I know for a fact about 80% of the people who post these mean spirited, insulting, and in many cases racist rants would not do it if they had to use their real names,” a poster named J Stew wrote on our web page.
“They act tough here but would be mortified if their friends, family, and co-workers saw what they write here. They use forums like this to cowardly hide while spewing vile insults and hate that they would never say to someone face to face.”

Back on Facebook, Jeni Alexander of Sanatoga noted: I think when it comes to news you should have to post your name -- it makes people responsible for their words.”

Pottstown resident Matt Diehl replied: “If I could rephrase part of your earlier comment Jeni? It makes people accountable for their words. Now, if we could only get them to be accountable for their actions.”

He added, “Technology is allowing us to be lazy, and less accountable than ever before. I agree with the first comment posted by Charles, but wanted you to also be aware that just because it's on Facebook doesn't mean it's not fake.”

He concluded by offering an anecdote often attributed to Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are, and say what you feel. Because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.”

Reason 2: The Easy Ambush

One of the responses posted on my blog gave the perfect example of this concern:

If you recall, some time back we were downright slandered by an anonymous poster on The Mercury,” wrote Cristian DeSeta.
“Not only did it cost us reputation, it cost us time and money to undo. All because an anonymous poster took advantage of the system to spread a batch of lies in an attempt to drive us out of town. The result of such action is that business is venerable here. The reality is that an anonymous poster could put someone out of business in such a delicate economy simply by spreading untruths and fear.
“A publication may be concerned when eyeballs drop from page views, but what will they say when businesses are driven from town by anonymous posters and stop advertising altogether?”

Others worried about people who outright lie under the cover of anonymity. (That would never happen right?):

“I believe that real names should be posted. Not just in the comment replies but in the Sound off phone in section as well,” Dan Dulnikowski wrote on our web site.
“Why? A while back the Mercury removed my comments when I called out a phony ‘Ex-Marine.’ Any real Marine knows that you are never an ‘ex’ Marine. But the poser who I called out complained I was abusive in calling him out. My comments were censored, even though they contained no profanity or abuse. When you are anonymous, you can say anything, with no fear of being called out. So, slander, bold faced lies, and personal attacks are easy. So is assuming the hard earned title of US Marine when you don't deserve it. That is my opinion, and my name is Dan Dulnikowski, Marine serving in a now, non-active duty capacity.”

Dewi Gallagher Wilson of Pottstown put it even more plainly: Because people lie. I know this one guy posting claims that he wont work for under $250,000 a year, he owns this and that…yeah right, show your name and you will get called out on it.”

Perhaps the person to whom the most thanks (or blame) can be attributed for this long discussion is Julian Francis, husband of Amy Francis, a former Pottstown School Board member and candidate and a sometime spokesperson for the Occupy Pottstown movement.

It was this latter title which earned Amy some Internet vitriol in two news stories I wrote about the event, one announcing its arrival and another on the event itself.

Rather than just complain to neighbors, or call in to Sound Off, Julian took it upon himself to write a letter to John Paton, CEO of Journal Register Co., which owns The Mercury, to protest the treatment she received on our web page.

His letter and Paton’s response, in case you haven’t seen it posted elsewhere in this discussion, are posted here in their entirety:

The subject line of the email was "Why I No Longer Subscribe to The Pottstown Mercury:"

Dear Mr. Paton:
I have lived in Pottstown, PA for the past 18 years. For a good majority of those years I was a paid subscriber to your Journal Register owned daily newspaper, The Mercury. I am no longer a paid subscriber and I would like to share with you why.
I can no longer read your publication due to the continuous and ongoing nasty and degrading comments posted online on a daily basis.
Let me share with you two examples. My wife Amy recently helped organize an Occupy event in downtown Pottstown. Two Mercury articles appeared in the print and online editions. Both articles have spawned close to 60 online comments (as of this writing). The vast majority of those comments are mean, bullying and downright nasty. Here are links to the two articles:
-- 'Occupy' arrives in Pottstown (currently 18 comments);
-- 'Occupy' movement coming to Pottstown (currently 38 comments);
I'm wondering why Journal Register does not use Facebook for their online comments?
I recently read that Gannett now requires Facebook for posting comments
("Gannett requiring Facebook for posting").
Even the neighboring Reading Eagle, the major daily newspaper of Reading, PA (which has a daily circulation of 64,000 and a Sunday circulation of 100,000) requires online comments to be done via Facebook.
Using Facebook will allow for higher quality discussion and a far less amount of anonymous comments ("News sites using Facebook Comments see higher quality discussion, more referrals,” 
(I just wanted an excuse to run this headline!)
I know of many, many Pottstown residents who are disgusted with The Mercury and refuse to read/subscribe to the newspaper due its daily dose of mean-spirited comments.
I would ask that you consider using Facebook for online comments to greatly reduce the amount of trashy comments that The Mercury approves and publishes on a daily basis. I always go out of my way to support businesses in Pottstown, but I will never support The Mercury as long as it gives these reckless comments and their authors an online platform for their hatred.

Julian also kindly provided my boss’s response:
Mr. Francis,
Online commenting is, for sure, one of the most contentious issues in journalism today.
There are no easy solutions and nothing else to do but to work hard to find one which is what we are doing.
I have asked JRC VP Jon Cooper to look into the matter you refer to specifically and report back on what actions, if any, we might take. I have copied Jim Brady, JRC's Editor-in-Chief on this email as well as Nancy March the editor of the Mercury and Ed Condra the Senior Publisher responsible for PA.
I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.
Sincere regards, John Paton.

Among the things the company did was conduct a company-wide conference on the matter, not the first.

(It was albeit on Twitter. I am still trying to get the hang of boiling down complicated thoughts to 140 characters. The length of the postings on this blog will give you some indication of my success. Nevertheless, a link to that dialogue, which was preserved, is provided here.)

No one there, that I can recall, argued that anonymous comments provide cover for trolls and haters. The discussion instead, was how to improve the dialogue.

Which segues quite nicely, thank you, into our next section…

The Method

Like those who favor anonymity, those who oppose it also offered suggestions about the methods we might use to improve dialog, with Facebook, as Julian indicated above, being the most popular suggestion.

Someone named “Unique Annique” posted the following response on the first blog entry on this subject: “IMO, anonymity in comments is trolling, death threats and down right meanness waiting to happen. When ppl comment on the Mercury Facebook page their face and real name are shown, it keeps ppl somewhat civil when expressing how they feel. If you let them be anonymous then they will express those same feelings only this time it will be in an unnecessary mean, harsh and even cruel manner. The key word here is UNNECESSARY. You can still say how you feel without being a jerk.”

In a comment on my first blog post on this subject, Joe Zlomek, former Mercury publisher, master of ceremonies at the venerable Sanatoga Post and my frequent (and often only) companion in the audience at many a Pottsgrove School Board meeting, offered, as always, some valuable insights:

“Not all identified commenters produce "quality" comments. Moreover, some quality comments are often produced by the anonymous. That said, I would prefer verifiable identification (via Facebook or some other contractor) rather than not.
The most recent research I've seen regarding news site comments is that a majority of comments on most stories are offered by and also read by a limited and recognizable group of commenters. That's often true for The Mercury, and for The Post Publications too.
So while comments may generate clicks, one measurement of website activity, they do not necessarily create growth in unique readership, a far more valuable indicator of website success.”

And then there was Chris Huff, who may well have been the only person with enough intestinal fortitude to actually have read all the JRC “tweets” on this subject.

He wrote simply: “Evan, Facebook or Disqus integration with The Mercury's on-line comments would help to tone down much of the hostility on display there, although it wouldn't eliminate it completely. It would be nice to see some meaningful debate for a change.”

But this preference for Facebook also comes with some warnings from our readers:

J Stew noted: “While it is nearly impossible to get people to use their real names to post (if you connect it to Facebook, they'll just create fake Facebook accounts to post), I do admire the effort.”

The well-informed “Doughboy” also offered a caveat:

“Let me point out one thing, even though Facebook has the TOS that says you must use real identity it doesn't work. You don't know who really is behind the name and if you aren't caught you can post their anonymously. Plus there are rules that say you have be above the age of 13 to have an account there, guess what a good amount of their users are believed to have lied about their age to have an account on the site.
Face it you can't enforce real identity online easily and you will drive your site readers, viewers away, that's a fact.”

Is there a Pot O' Gold at the end of this journey?
And so we arrive at the end of this journey, certainly better informed, but not necessarily any closer to a decision about what to change, if anything on the Web site.

As I have said before in many forum, that is not my decision. But thankfully, this company now embraces and encourages open dialogue and that has provided this forum for me to organize and present to them how this community feels on the subject.

If there are any changes coming, I will be the first to let you know.

For my own part, I must say I found this process valuable in thinking about this.

I began this dialogue dedicated to my crusade to remove anonymity convinced that despite its theoretical values to our Web site, the cost in abusive comments is too high.

I still believe that to be true in many ways. But the solution now seems a little absolutist to me.

I will confess, coming from a tradition (yes, I’m still ‘Old School’ in a lot of ways) that values anonymous sources, I have second thoughts about abandoning anonymity just because so many people can’t use it responsibly.

(Is it just me, or is this starting to sound like a commercial for liquor or firearms?!?)

Anyway, I do find myself being swayed by some of the arguments in favor of finding a method for mitigating the abuse, for encouraging useful dialogue rather than potentially squelching it because just because over-exposure is giving me a weak stomach for the vitriolic soup in which those gems are found.

If we could find a way to do that, using any or a combination of methods to improve dialog and still allow people to be anonymous, what would you think? Do you think our readers could handle it? Could The Mercury?

I remain interested in your thoughts on the matter.

1 comment:

  1. great post, Evan! I agree: before you try to be Mr. Right, you should think what it the right thing to do for your own family and for your own future.
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