Untangling the Web: Got something to say?

A new Jpost.com column on the ever-changing world of news online: Talkbacks can be more than just unregulated digital pandemonium.

By ELANA KIRSH
August 8, 2011 14:18
Comments section of the article on Yahoo

Yahoo talkbacks 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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!”

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.

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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 press.

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.”

Huffington 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.

And 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.

Why? There 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 posting.

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 information.

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.

The 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 credibility.

And for talkbacks on news sites, the same should be true.

At 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 reason.

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.

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