Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Will Mercury commenters have to 'Face' the music? That's the 'Buzz'

I've just returned from the studios of WBZH where Mercury Editor Nancy March and I had a very enjoyable conversation with host Dave Devlin on the subject of the day -- anonymous comments on our web site.

During that conversation, Nancy revealed that JRC CEO John Paton has designated The Mercury as one of the company papers/web sites at which using Facebook as the method to sign in for comments will be tried.

Apparently that happened late last week so, since it does not seem to be a secret any more, I'm announcing it here. Remember, you read it here first (even if you heard it first on "The Buzz" as WBZH is calling itself).

First, a whole host of caveats.

1) We have not figured out how to do this technically so, if it is workable, it will likely be a while before it gets implemented.

2) On that note, there are other technology issues going on now with JRC, some new computer operating systems and the like, so it may be a looooooong while before it gets implemented. In the meantime, we will be stuck with the current system of moderated commenting.

3) And this is probably the most important, this is an ongoing effort. This is an experiment. Just as our sister paper in Connecticut, The Torrington Register-Citizen, is experimenting with Disqus software, which allows but does not require identified log-ins, we will try Facebook here.

The company is looking for the best method.You are all, quite literally, our "Community Media Lab."

What's become evident, to me at least, in all this discussion is that the goal is more more important than the method.

As I told Dave on this morning's broadcast, the goal I would like to see us pursue is whatever method works best to host, generate, encourage, foster and enliven civil, meaningful discussion on issues which face our town, our region and our nation.

To me, provided the user interface is user-friendly and open to the broadest possible number of people, the method is immaterial.

I don't care if that turns out to be Facebook, Disqus or some software I've never heard of (and that's a lot). What matters to me and, I hope, to you, is the result: a better quality of intelligent, thoughtful, respectful  discourse that sticks to the issue at hand.

Some have said using Facebook won't work.

And they may be right.

If it turns out to be the case, hopefully we will try something else.

We are feeling our way here folks, trying to impose some kind of newspaper and community standard on a medium that has, since its inception, been the wild west in terms of content and behavior.

I hope it matters to our readers and our community that we're trying.

What we are NOT trying to do, silence specific people or voices, only to develop a standard of behavior that allows those viewpoints to be presented and discussed without feeling like you have to wash your hands when you're done.

What we ARE trying to do is elevate the discussion we host and hopefully, as a result, our community, to a more productive tone and place.

I can promise you two things: Whatever we settle on, our path there will be transparent and the method will be imperfect.

What we don't need is any more of THIS.
Every method, phone-ins, e-mail, web posting, moderated web posting, Facebook, Twitter, Disqus, smoke signals, carrier pigeon has its downsides.

And whatever we use, some people won't like it.

Some will tell us that we'll lose participants as a result of the change, and that is most certainly both true and regrettable.

But one question I haven't seen asked (or answered) yet is who have we already lost because of what goes on there now?

Are we satisfied with what goes on there now? I'm not. And I think a lot of other people are not either.

Who knows? Maybe I'm wrong and maybe this whole thing goes full circle and we end up right back where we are now. At least we'll know then that like Winston Churchill's view of Democracy as a form of government, "it is the absolute worst, except for all the others."

For now, I think I feel safe in saying it is our goal to advocate for whatever method or combination of methods provides a result that our community (and our newspaper) can be proud of; a forum where people go to get and express new ideas and viewpoints without fear of retaliation, intimidation or outright bullying.

I should say at this point that I don't think we would have been chosen for this experiment if it were not for the engagement of our readers; whose comments and involvement in this discussion helped to raise our profile with top management.

I think I can safely say, whatever position any of our commenters took on this, everyone wanted something better than we have now.

And for that, I thank you.

I should also say that this initiative is specific to the web.

During our conversation with Dave this morning, Nancy strove to differentiate between Sound Off, which involves people calling in on telephones and their comments being printed in the paper, and what goes on at our web site.

This potential change to Facebook WILL NOT affect people's ability to call Sound Off and leave comments and for them to be printed. What it DOES have the potential to affect is the comments that get posted beneath where Sound Off is published on our web site.

So we'll see where it all goes.

Once it becomes more definite and we have a likely implementation schedule, we will publish notice in the newspaper, on-line and certainly right here.

(In the shameless promotion department, I remind everyone that can follow me on Twitter @PottstownNews)

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