April 12, 2010

Today we’re in class discussing the appropriateness – or lack thereof – of comment boards on major news sites. Most news sites allow anonymous commenting, and if anyone has ever looked at an anonymous comment board, they have more or less found themselves looking right into the depths of hell. Hence, the dilemma.

This post by Howard Owens, on the appropriately named, outlines his argument for the real-names-commenting-system he employs on his own site. He argues that since journalism has always prided itself on transparency (which you may or may not credit it with actually espousing in practice – beside the point, we’re in the lovely land of theory here), what with the aversion to anonymous sources, the disallowing of anonymous letters-to-the-editor, the very nature of a byline itself, journalism should have no place enabling anonymous vitriol and bile to flood its hard-bought bandwidth.

And I think he’s absolutely correct. Regardless of what anonymous commenting might in theory encourage, we have seen it produce only its worst in practice. Consistently. Everywhere. And so Owens adopts a real-name policy, whereby he gives it his best effort to ensure that all commenters are doing so under what is, in fact, their real names. As he basically puts it, it is a basic journalistic tenet that “readers have a right to know who is saying what.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean it can be enforced 100%. Maybe someday, but right now a best-effort is about as good as we’re going to get. And I think that’s good enough for now. Per Howard:

I make no promise that every person who comments on The Batavian is using a real name, but I do promise a best effort to enforce that policy and that people who violate the policy will be banned. That’s the best I can do and for the most part, and our users seemed satisfied with this “best effort” approach.

Can major news organizations, already under the duress of tight budgets and disappearing profits, afford to devote resources to putting in this kind of effort? I don’t know for sure. My gut says it’s impractical to think so. I wish they could, however. Or get rid of comments entirely.

I think someday we’ll see a system where everyone is expected to put their real name out there on the internet, and we’ll have the software to enforce it, and I think that will be a glorious day. We’ll get to look back on the early days of the internet and the wild-wild-west nature of commenting and laugh a little, at all those petulant minds out there that once could hind behind a keyboard, a name like “RealAmerican1776,” and spout off whatever hateful opinion they had brewing amidst their blissfully ignorant existence.