"I really don't think you should allow commenting by anonymous commenters." –Martin Edic.
"I agree with Martin Edic. Anyone commenting should identify themselves." –James Bearden.
"I also agree that City Newspaper does a disservice to its readership by posting anonymous comments." – Larry Champoux.
Let me take time off this week from giving you my opinion and ask for yours: What do you think about anonymous comments on our website and in our reader Feedback column?
Many of what used to be called letters to the editor carry the writer's name, whether they're land-mail submissions or postings on our website. But an increasing number do not. And that's particularly true of the online comments, where my guess is that more than half are posted anonymously.
Many of us, myself included, feel far more comfortable with comments whose writers are willing to sign their names. But the internet has brought a different culture to public discussions, for good or for ill (and I think it's both).
The idea is that the internet is freewheeling, informal, and hyper-public and that media websites can serve as limitless town squares, where people can get up on soap boxes and rant, gather in small groups to discuss everything from important public issues to the latest bar opening, and slap up anonymous flyers proclaiming... whatever they like.
The downside, of course, is that people do exactly that, posting rambling, nonsensical comments; racist comments; personal attacks on other readers.
One way to stop that is to require readers to register before they can post a comment. But that can make the process cumbersome, eliminating the spontaneity. Another solution: require readers to post their comments through Facebook or to post them with a real name rather than an alias. But that assumes that every poster is being truthful.
And given the increasing privacy concerns about the internet, some readers are simply unwilling to make their names public online.
Our solution here has been to allow anonymity but to moderate all comments. Our editors review the posted comments regularly, and we delete offensive ones. While that's time consuming, we want to do what we can to encourage reader interaction and discussion. We're getting more comments now than we did pre-website, and the online posts are frequently some of the most interesting and most informative we receive.
Still, we wrestle with the issue of anonymity. And after reading the posts I quoted at the beginning of this piece, I added a comment noting that our staff was discussing our policy. In response came these posts:
"Do people who value privacy have nothing to contribute to a 'serious discussion about contemporary topics'? An idea or argument should stand or fall on its merits, not on the biography or personality or popularity of the speaker." – Proudly Anonymous While We Still Can.
"I certainly stand behind my point of view. However in this debate, I could lose my job and pension because of my honesty. Not to mention, as close as Buffalo, unions still resort to violence for what they call 'scabs.' How's that for freedom of speech? There are other debates this country desperately needs to have, like the one about race. Unfortunately we can't, even with a black president. I am a person who does look at all sides of an issue before making up my mind. After all, here I am reading and commenting on a newspaper that makes my blood boil. If you'd like to shut down all debate, that's fine; it's your paper. But what would you gain in the end?" – Johnny.
All of these posts were on a guest column about the value of unions, and "Johnny's" anonymity may be understandable. We also hear frequently from teachers about school district concerns. They might not comment if they had to sign their name.
So who is right? Edic, Bearden, and Champoux? Or Proudly Anonymous and Johnny? If we blocked anonymity, would we gain more than we would lose?
We'd love to hear from you.