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Black Press wants you to use Facebook to comment on its stories, hopes it won’t feed the trolls

Posted on 1 December 2011

The Black Press is pretty sure you can’t troll them if you have to use Facebook to comment on their stories.

Visiting any of their paper’s websites this morning, you will see that comments are closed as they prepare to make the switchover. This affects a number of Black Press-owned publications in northern B.C., including the Lakes District News, Caledonia Courier, Houston Today, Terrace Standard, Northern View, Omineca Express, and the non-Black Press-owned-but-still-affiliated-online Prince George Free Press. This change was announced about a week ago in a post entitled “An End to Anonymous Comments,” in which online manager for the publisher Rob DeMone wrote:

“Our community newspapers don’t print anonymous letters, yet we’ve allowed our websites to become a place where people can hide their identity while occasionally taking shots at one another.

 Starting Dec. 1, that policy will change.

People will only be able to comment by using their Facebook account, which means their name, often even their photograph, will be linked to the statements they post.”

While I sympathize with their desire to remove vitriolic comments (the comments section on that story gave me enough evidence that they have their fair share of pot-shot takers on the main site), I feel like they’re confusing the cause and the cure.

First of all, it’s misleading to write a post called “An End to Anonymous Comments” and then act as if they had no choice but to go to Facebook. The Black Press currently uses the wonderful (my opinion, obviously) Disqus system to power comments. I use the same system on this blog, and a number of other sites do, too, including the Prince George Citizen, AVC, and Macleans.ca (for my money, the place that has the best comments of any national news source). And using Disqus, you definitely don’t have to allow anonymous commentators. I logged into my account and within 30 seconds got here:

Who Can Comment?

As you can see, while you can allow anonymous comments, you can also set it so you require a verified email address before saying anything.

Do you know what it takes to sign up for a Facebook account?

An email address.

So I don’t really see how requiring people to have a Facebook account will achieve anything more than requiring people to verify their Disqus account with an email would. And if you think people can’t use Facebook with fake names, I suggest you take a look at my news feed, full of people with names that include things like “Gonzo” and “—“. Trolls will figure this out. In fact, they’re already saying as much on the Black Press story.

But what’s wrong with Facebook?

But you may continue to wonder why I have a problem with Facebook comments. And if pressed, I have nothing that I feel is a completely air-tight argument against using them, but there are a number of factors that make me dislike them:

1. Aesthetics.

I’m beating an old horse, but Facebook is ugly. Facebook comments are ugly. The text is too small, it’s boxy– it looks exactly like commenting on something on Facebook. When you’re in a site with larger text and nice graphics, Facebook comments just look out of place.

2. Conversation threads.

Disqus has the wonderful ability to reply to replies in comment threads. This may seem like a small thing, but when it comes long conversations with multiple points (the sort of thing you may well get on a news story), this is great.

Facebook doesn’t have this ability. And it’s annoying as heck. If I comment on someone’s post, I get notified when anyone else comments on it as well. Which is awesome, if it’s relevant to my point or the first person’s point, but when they’ve high-jacked the conversation to be about something else, then it’s the worst. If they had these threaded conversations, then only the people who are involved in that portion of the comments thread get notified, while the rest of us can get on with our day. Disqus has this.

3. I never want to comment on stories using Facebook.

I’m not the most active internet-commentator. But when I feel like I contribute to the story in some way, I like to. But I have never, ever done this on a site that requires Facebook comments. Maybe it’s just me, but I still tend to treat Facebook like a bit of a walled-garden. Not because I’m really posting things on Facebook that I wouldn’t on Twitter or Tumblr, but more because I’m on Facebook out of the necessity that everyone else is on Facebook than I am because it’s my favourite social network. And since it’s NOT my favourite social network… I don’t really like using it as my public online persona.

You’ll notice that on my start page for this site (a site designed to be the first thing that comes up when people Google my name) I direct people to my blog, my Tumblr, and my Twitter. These are my public online personas. If people read one of my comments somewhere, and click on my name to see what else I’m about, I’d prefer they go to one of those places than to my Facebook. By saying to me “you’re Facebook Andrew on this site, or you’re nothing”, I’m going to go with nothing.

4. People may have legitimate reasons for using pseudonyms.

There’s a difference between anonymous and pseudonymous. I follow plenty of real people on Twitter who don’t use their real name. And I’ve seen plenty of legitimate and thought-provoking comments from people not using their real names. There can be any number of reasons they don’t use their real name. Maybe they are in government or political work and shouldn’t be expressing opinions about sensitive topics under their “true” identity. Maybe they want to comment on a story about being a closet homosexual, but don’t want all their Facebook friends to know that they are, indeed, a closet homosexual. Who knows? The question Black Press should ask itself is do they really want to exclude these people from the conversation?

(and yes, these people could sign up for a fake Facebook account, but then so can the trolls, so what’s the point of the Facebook thing, anyways, and on and on and on…).

Let people choose which face they put forward, Facebook isn’t the only legitimate online identity.

5. Real names do not mean better comments (and fake names don’t mean worse ones).

The question of what makes good online comments is the subject of countless blog posts and online discussions. As someone fascinated by this topic, I’ve read my share  of opinions on this front, and I think it’s fair to say that the comment system alone has very little to do with the tone of the comments.

More important is how the site’s owners interact with their commentators. Macleans uses Disqus, but it also regularly sees its writers jumping into the comments section to engage with readers. So do the personalities behind CBC Radio 3 and the program Spark. Not surprisingly, these are two of the most robust and insightful comments sections anywhere on CBC.

But Black Press sites aren’t national shows with a mostly young, tech-savvy audience. They’re much more like something like… well, Opinion250, a news site serving Prince George run by veteran broadcaster Ben Meisner and his partner Elaine. They regularly draw a huge number of comments, rarely from people using their real names. Here’s what Ben had to say on Black Press’ move:

“We also have agonized over some of the posters who take perhaps far more liberties than they should be allowed to take, take cheap shots at one another, and on the odd occasion cross the line of what we think is appropriate comment about an issue or person…

In the end, we have over 17,000 people who have registered to make comments on Opinion250 since its beginning. Just over fifty have been a problem and of that number we have had to cut privileges to them on more than one occasion, suggesting that they don’t learn easily.  Fifty out of 17,000 suggests to us that the people want to have the right to post while maintaining  their privacy. We insist that when we go the ballot box that we have the right to privacy and so it should lend that we also would want the same in our writing.
Trying to censure who writes what and when is a slippery slope. What you and I might deem as in poor taste may seem perfectly alright to someone else. What is an issue to someone may not necessarily be an issue to another poster. Everyone should have the right no matter what level of intelligence we think they possess to be able to have their thoughts known. We try as best to not interfere with that freedom of speech unless you have crossed the boundaries of the items I mentioned earlier.”

The comments on Opinion250 are not always inspiring. But they are rarely anything that would make me think “OK, time to shut this whole thing down!”, either. They are what they should be– people, talking about things they care about, using whatever public persona they choose.

Conclusion

Black Press doesn’t have to allow anonymous comments. It doesn’t have to allow comments at all, actually. A number of sites have chosen not to. But I get the impression from this move that they want comments, they just don’t want the sort of comments they’ve been getting. And they think switching to Facebook will fix that.

I disagree. There are a number of people who won’t take part in a discussion that doesn’t allow fake names, and not all of them are people you necessarily want to exclude.

Further, there are no shortage of examples of websites with a decent commenting community that allow fake names. If Black Press finds they aren’t getting this, these other sites are proof it’s not just because they allow anonymous comments. It’s something else. And if they are committed to fostering a robust online community, they may want to figure out what that is rather than putting all their eggs in Facebook’s basket.

Have a thought? Leave an anonymous, trolling comment below!

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