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A not-so-open thread: The price and value of anonymity

Down with trolls

Over the last year, the most consistent complaint I’ve heard about The Sacramento Bee has had nothing to do with their coverage or journalism, but rather with their comments section and the trolls that tend to dwell there. Those trolls may now be on the verge of eviction.

Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar announced changes yesterday to the paper’s comment system. SacBee.com will temporarily stop comments on Oct. 14 in preparation for launching a new system, which will require users to sign in via social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or another platform. It’s unclear how this would affect comments on existing articles.

Terhaar reasons that users will be more conscious of what they say if their social media profiles are attached to their comments, and this will in turn improve the conversation. She ends the piece on this note:

“I’ll consider it a win if the trolls realize that inflicting pain isn’t ever funny or clever – and if comments instead add constructive and civil discourse alongside The Bee’s journalism.”

Terhaar puts the Bee’s decision in the context of other sites that have made similar moves, like The Huffington Post. Interestingly, the Bee opted to not take the same course recently taken by other McClatchy Company papers, requiring readers to sign in via Facebook, without providing an option to use any other outlet or platform. This deserves some recognition, as there is something off-putting about the big newspaper in a one-newspaper town turning over its comments to a single corporate behemoth, one that also happens to have a history of taking a liberal view of its users privacy. It probably would have been easier for the Bee’s leadership to follow the McClatchy herd, and the fact that they didn’t shows they’re putting a lot of thought into how they want to handle, and now fix, their comments section.

But while Terhaar sees ending, or at least discouraging, anonymity as a way of combating trolls, she doesn’t acknowledge other, competing truths – not all anonymous users are trolls, and trolls aren’t always anonymous. There is also a value in allowing readers to comment without using their real names. It’s often true that users with the most valuable experience or insight to lend a story are also the ones most uncomfortable speaking freely about it – think of a government worker in a dysfunctional department or a witness to a crime. Sometimes these users prefer to email in tips. Other times, they prefer to leave comments.

While it’s true that the trend among news sites has been away from anonymous comments, two of the more innovative digital news publishers have recently decided to buck the trend.

Nick Denton, the publisher of Gawker and its network of affiliated blogs, has been the the most prominent proponent of the value of anonymous comments. In July, the company rolled out a new comment system, Kinja, that took $10 million and two years to build.

Kinja has a complex feature set that’s best understood by using it. Among other things, it gives users more flexibility in filtering which comments they see and allows users to accept or reject replies to their own comments. The system highlights replies to comments by creating “threads,” or discrete boxes featuring the comment and all its replies (as opposed to the standard practice of using one giant list of comments below the article), and gives Gawker staff the ability to spotlight the best exchanges.

Kinja takes anonymity a step further than most other outlets via the cleverly named “burner accounts.” Not only are these accounts anonymous, but users don’t have to provide an email address or any other personal information to comment. The intention is to completely protect the user’s identity, even in the event that Gawker gets hacked.

Denton addressed the issue head-on in a post titled “Why Anonymity Matters.” He sees anonymous comments as being an important way for users to raise questions or leave tips, but believes those commenters should themselves be challenged by other commenters. In Denton’s universe, anonymous comments, and the debate they can spark, actually further journalism by providing another avenue for readers to add to the original article.

“It’s time for the leakers and the moles to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information; and it’s time for them to be subject to challenge, not just by their pet reporter, but by readers,” he writes.

Talking Points Memo, a well-respected and liberal-leaning political news and analysis site, launched a new comment system in August. It too allows for anonymous comments. The site’s editor and publisher, Josh Marshall, explained in an Aug. 11 post that many TPM users didn’t want to be obligated to go through a social media network to comment on the site.

“… We’ve always had a decent minority of users (hard to say how many since people who don’t like it speak up) who don’t like having to join some other system in order to comment at TPM. They don’t want to sign up with Disqus or Facebook or Twitter or whatever else. For some it’s a privacy issue. For others it’s just a matter of not wanting to be part of the social web or have their TPM commenting be part of their Facebook profile or whatever else. For still others, I think it just makes their TPM experience seem less intimate or distinct.”

None of this is to say that Terhaar’s approach to comments is the wrong step for the Bee. She recognizes that the site has an issue and is trying to address it. Unlike Denton, she didn’t have the luxury of spending millions of dollars to build a new comment system from scratch. I bet SacBee.com will be a better site when their new system launches, but there is still an unavoidable element of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” by moving away from anonymous comments entirely. You lose some of the worst aspects of comments, but some of the best ones as well.

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