Enforcing good manners in reader comments

13 10 2009

I still believe in the concept and value of interactivity on news Web sites, but some time ago I developed the habit of instinctively avoiding the comments section.

For one thing, I don’t need the downer. It is easy to despair humanity when you get involved — even as a lurker — in the comment wars that so frequently follow stories. It’s all too easy to get hooked on these exchanges, and I am usually angry or disgusted before I pull myself away. I’m not a masochist, and I don’t need the negative energy.

I’ll bet most reporters and editors who produce those stories eventually have the same reaction. Who has time for that stuff? Why give yourself a headache?

Now the Cleveland Plain Dealer is trying to address that. Good for them! The newspaper appointed its director of training and digital development, John Kroll, to work on better enforcement of the community rules. He says the essence of the rules is “We won’t tolerate jerks.”plain-dealer-logo

Better than that, the PD is encouraging reporters and editors to join the conversation. The thesis of the experiment is that people become more civil when it’s a real dialogue rather than a graffiti board. Many corporations have found that blogs and message boards become much more rational in comments about their services or products when the corporation engages these Internet users directly. When readers perceive the newspaper reporter or corporation as distant and removed, their hostility grows and they feel free, and safe, in taking pot shots.

Another course would be to no longer permit aliases. Apply the same standards you apply to letters to the editor: a real name and location. This would discourage cowardly behavior and raise the level of discourse.

Yeah, I know Internet privacy is a big concern. But I also know the jerks are ruining the Internet’s promise of interactivity and turning it into the domain of anonymous social misfits. If you want to share your opinion, have the same amount of guts as the person whose byline tops the article. Without your real name, your opinion carries no weight anyway.

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