In times gone by, writing a Letter to the Editor (LTE) was a refined thing to do. I picture Leo from The West Wing or my grandmother, reading an article in a reputable paper, getting an indignant look on his/her face, and exclaiming “that’s it! I’m writing a Letter to the Editor!”
RELATED:The Numbers Crunch: Talkbackers talk about talkbacks
A common fixture on newspaper opinion pages the world over, traditional LTEs state positions, often for or against an editorial standpoint, on controversial current affairs, or correcting mistakes. LTEs have a standard length and code, and are often not selected for publication if they contain curses, libelous statements or attacks on specific individuals or groups, or are submitted anonymously.
And much of the same is true for the LTE’s modern, online cousin, the reader talkback, except for the issue of anonymity, which still remains to be ironed out.
The discourse of reader comments at the end of online news articles these days is a living, breathing creature of wonder, often as engaging as the story itself. This debate has the potential to become something intelligent and dynamic, but first, news sites need to design and implement user comment systems that work, and more important, the process has to be regulated. Something must be done to stop the healthy back-and-forth from deteriorating to a place where anonymous users can freely sling mud at the writer, the paper and one another.
In printed LTEs, signing one’s name was not always a must. In fact, it
was Cold War paranoia about communists influencing American society or
infiltrating the government in the middle of the 20th century which
brought about a near-end to unsigned ones in the US. Before that,
anonymous LTEs were widespread, and even heralded as central to a free
Now, in the online sphere, news sites and readers alike
are undecided on the issue, though a trend away from anonymity and
towards registration does seem to be developing. What may seem like a
“mass media vs the individual” struggle, where sites want readers to
sign up and readers want to hang on to their privacy, is actually part
of the bigger issue of online culture.
In a New York Times
article on user comment systems last year, Huffington Post founder
Arianna Huffington was quoted as saying, “Many people, when you give
them other choices, they choose not to be anonymous.”
made the comments just before her news aggregate blog launched HuffPost
Social News, a Facebook collaboration which allows users to earn
“badges” based on their activity on the site. Not only does the system
encourage self-identification online, it rewards it, giving users the
ranked titles “Networker,” “Superuser” and “Moderator.”
“There is a younger generation that doesn’t feel the same need for privacy,” she told the Times.
if we zoom out past the news sphere, it seems she’s quite right. While
my parents and grandparents are hesitant to give their credit card
details online, let alone sign up for a social network site, my
generation doesn’t seem to give it a second thought. Sure, I’d rather
that certain personal information doesn’t come up when friends, family
and potential employers google my name, but the idea of a blog profile
or comment I’ve made being discovered doesn’t worry me in the slightest.
Perhaps it’s my generation’s very comfort with the Internet which
allays our fears.
On The Jerusalem Post’s site, however,
Huffington’s theory is yet to be proved. Three weeks after the site
launched a new talkback system, 56 percent of users are choosing to post
as guests, which means they can retain their anonymity, but their
comments must pass through a moderator. The remaining 44% have selected
other options such as registering or signing in through Facebook or
Yahoo!, all of which have some level of transparency.
are three likely reasons: Either it’s a generation thing, which runs
parallel to the evolution of online culture in recent years, or users
feel that they have a right to post online anonymously. Or, perhaps it’s
simply a matter of a new system taking time to catch on. New York Times
online readers, for example, seem to have no problem registering before
In the mid-'90s, anonymity was certainly the name of
the game. The main noncommercial use for the Web other than e-mail was
chat rooms; everyone at school had a handle, or screename, which rarely
had anything to do with their actual identity. And this was exactly what
was so exciting about the new platform – you could be whoever you
wanted to be.
In more recent years, however, we’ve seen a move
in the other direction. Take Facebook, for example, so often used as a
symbol of online culture today. The original point of the social
network, as depicted in the 2010 movie The Social Network, was to
recreate the college experience, online. And the college experience is
anything but anonymous. So it follows that all profiles must have a
name, supposedly a real name, a photo, and various other pieces of
personal information. Users are supposedly accountable for what they put
online, for better or for worse. That is to say, they get credit for
the witty comments posted, and rebuked if they post disagreeable
And it’s not just about individuals. Organizations,
political groups and companies also benefit from being identified
online – advertising and campaigning online, for example, would hardly
be effective if run anonymously.
So the 56% of users that still
prefer to post as guests could all just be from an older age bracket, as
readers of The Jerusalem Post print edition tend to be, or they’re
relics of an Internet culture which is on its way out. On the other
hand, it’s possible that these users feel that they are entitled to post
whatever reactions they see fit. That news sites ask users to sign up,
let alone moderate comments, somehow violates freedom of the press or
freedom of speech.
In fact, I would argue that anonymous
talkbacks and such freedoms have little to do with each other. Just as
newspapers can choose which stories to run, what angle to focus on and
which LTEs to print, their online counterparts are entitled to choose
what comments are approved for publishing. News sites need to look out
for their own credibility, to say nothing of legal liability. Content
selection does not stop at stories; it includes talkbacks.
more the Internet is used as a medium with which to gather and
disseminate information, the more crucial it is for sources to be
properly attributed. When using the Internet for academic research, for
example, a practice unthought-of in days gone by, sources are key.
Online, as offline, comments without proper attribution hold little
And for talkbacks on news sites, the same should be true.
first, with the process of digitalization, talkbacks on news stories
were set up as simply an online version of the LTE – people posting
comments on a specific article, electronically. However, just as
anonymous chat rooms were (and continue to be) abused by pedophiles and
other unsavory types, news sites where users can post anonymously have
become a free-for-all. To be clear, I’m all for healthy debate and
constructive criticism, but I believe it should be regulated, and within
If you have something to say, good or bad, say it to my
face, with your name on it. If you wouldn’t say it out loud if you saw
me on the street, maybe the place for your comment is your blog, and not
a reputable news site. It has to work both ways, though; news sites
need to implement user-friendly talkback systems for registration and
moderation, and readers will follow suit. There are plenty of other
platforms where nerds can run amok and say whatever they want to
whomever they want – talkbacks on news sites needn’t be just another
example of unregulated digital pandemonium.The writer is the Internet desk manager at The Jerusalem Post.