Alex Blaze

How to destroy online discourse and how to improve it

Filed By Alex Blaze | February 15, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: award winning, internet, Mark Morford, web 2.0

Columnist Mark Morford gripes in the San Francisco Chronicle about the lack of civility on the internet. Did you know that sometimes people on the internet are mean?

He blames it on anonymous commenting. Because, you see, there was a time when the internet was a really fun place to write where feedback on major newspapers' sites (like his) was actually useful and stuff. Apparently, the mailto link was inextricably tied up with this civility (because Outlook had a feature to prevent stupid emails?).

That sacred relationship is no longer the slightest bit sacred. If you've ever spent much time in the comment boards of this or any major media site (or, of course, any popular blog), you already know: Anonymity tends to bring out the absolute worst in people, the meanest and nastiest and least considerate. Something about not having to reveal who you really are caters to the basest, most unkind instincts of the human animal. Go figure

He's definitely not the first and won't be the last pundit bothered by having to deal with the unwashed masses - this has become a perennial complaint from traditional media types about Web 2.0. But his solution, getting rid of anonymity, is just one of the worst ways to deal with the problem, not only because it's impossible to enforce, but also because it would do far more to degrade the level of discourse online than any flame anyone's ever left on a website.

In defense of the anonymous commenter

Morford's premise is that anonymous commenters add nothing useful to online discourse; in fact, they've destroyed it. Back when people had to email their stupidity in to someone, the discourse was so much better, since everyone knows you have to use a real name with your email account.

But this has not been my experience with the internet at all. There are plenty of you who comment anonymously here on Bilerico Project. In fact, most people who comment here who aren't contributors do so anonymously. There's nothing wrong with that, and we maintain a pretty high level of discourse here. There are lots of useful discussions going on in the comments here that are educational even to people who don't participate.

There's a lot to be said for anonymous commenting. In fact, most commenting online is anonymous. Honest and good people have all sorts of reasons not to want their name to appear with a comment on a particular site. Maybe they're looking at websites at work during work hours. Maybe they don't want someone else to follow them. Maybe they just don't like their real name.

In an LGBT context, the question is even more complicated. Someone might not use their legal name because he or she is transitioning and wants to present a first name that's in line with his or her gender identity. Maybe a gay man or a lesbian who live in a state where they can't change their last name to their partner's would want to use that last name anyway while among friends. Someone who isn't out yet might want to make up a handle to avoid having a family member or coworker happen upon their online activities on a site like Bilerico through a Google search for their name.

None of these mean that these people don't have anything to add to online discussions. The blogosphere is replete with anonymous commentators, people who don't much care to build up a name based on their insight and are more concerned with discussing issues than personal fame and glory. Digby comes to mind, since she spent years blogging anonymously, not even revealing her gender, until she and other bloggers were honored at a Take Back America banquet and she was asked to deliver a speech. And she still blogs under the name "Digby."

I can't imagine how many good people would be discouraged from participating online if the internet were no longer anonymous. As I'm often asking people to think about when they want to enforce a rule online: how many people must be excluded from the discussion before the requirements for "civilized discourse" are met?

Mark Morford tells you how to ruin your comments section in one easy step

Anyway, Morford proposes two solutions, the first of which is StupidFilter. Which isn't out of Beta. Which doesn't even propose to solve the problems Morford cites - it's supposed to block bad grammar and "LOL"s, not flames and general stupidity.

It makes one wish for a StupidFilter to block certain columnists....

His second solution is to basically get rid of comments sections:

There is, of course, another solution, and it's far simpler and more elegant and it would fix the entire problem in an instant.

It is this: Reveal yourself. Anyone who wishes to post a public comment must also post his/her real name, an actual email address, maybe even a nice little headshot. You want to participate and add to the conversation, criticize and parry and thrust? Great. Let's see who you are, honest and true. Fire it up. Debate. Engage. Let's create a real community.

No more hiding. No more anonymous cowardice. No more hit-and-run verbal spitwads and avoiding responsibility for what you say. Hey, writers and journalists have been doing it for years, posting our names and email addresses and even photos for the entire world to see. If Web 2.0 means we're now all in this public sphere together, shouldn't I know exactly who you are, too? Shouldn't everyone?

Sure, let's do that! Let's force everyone to use their real name and photos! OK, now how do we do that?

There's no easy answer there, and definitely not one that's either simple or elegant. The only way to ensure that people are using their real names is to ask for a credit card number.

This would do wonders for a comments section, since now absolutely no one would use it. People are justifiably wary of giving out their credit card information online, even if it's not going to be billed. Especially if it's just to leave a mean comment telling Morford he's full of it - it'd be much easier to start a blog called "Morford Watch" and make fun of every column he writes, complete with flames, insults, and "LOL!!!~!!!1!!!!!1"s.

And I'm sure that would be a great improvement to the level of internet discourse.

But even credit card numbers can't ensure real photos. The only way to do that is what I've seen Dudes Nude do, which is they send you a code and you send in a photo of yourself hold a hand-made sign with that code written on it and the appropriate body parts showing. They check that photo against others you've submitted and they make sure it's really you. But I doubt the SF Chronicle is about to start that.

How to improve your comments section for real... Yes, it's work

As much as Bil and I complain about the "wars" in the comments here, I think we have a pretty good comments section for its size. Especially compared with other blogs that take on similar topics....

I also spend a whole lot of time on other sites that have good comments sections. If I know that the commenters there are going to have something to add, then I'm likely to read those comments. If the site has a comments section that's just awful (not naming names), I'm unlikely to click through to read what's there.

There are a few creative solutions to improving a comments section that actually make sense, unlike what Morford produced by pounding his keyboard, ironically bemoaning the fact that there are stupid people on the internet.

For example, a ratings system can help people find the comments that are the most useful. DailyKos has a great system where people uptick comments that are good, and you can search for those with a high rating and read what the buzz is about. Trusted Users can hide comments that violate the rules of that community. It's community policing, if you will, and it's fairly effective.

In another ironic twist, the San Francisco Chronicle's site uses a similar feature. The top two commenters on Morford's article are from the pictureless "gdog" and "netrover18," who bemoan anonymous commenting on the internet. I don't know if it's an elaborate deadpan joke created by them and promoted by the hundreds of people who upticked their comments or just a stunning lack of self-awareness, but it's funny either way.

Another solution is for the blog writers to participate in the comments. This keeps them from getting out of control, and people are less likely to say something stupid or excessively mean if they think that whoever they're talking to is actually reading what they're writing. A major part of the problem with mean internet comments just stems from the fact that on major newspaper websites columnists and journalists don't deal with the site at all, even though their content is posted there by some lowly staffer. Commenters assume they aren't hurting anyone since journalists almost never participate in their own comments, and, voila, some people go overboard.

It's probably the step that Bil and I took here at TBP that improved the level of discourse the most - we're always in the comments section here talking with people and many of the contributors to the site will respond directly to comments left for them. We don't always agree, but at least it prevents people from being needlessly mean. And that's probably why Morford noticed a change from the Era of Email to Web 2.0 - people reasonably assume that a journalist will read an email sent to her, but they also assume that these journalists don't even glance at the comments they receive online.

Glenn Greenwald and many of the contributors to Pam's House Blend participate in their own comments sections, and, not coincidentally, I actually like to read comments on their sites.

Another solution is to reward people who leave good comments. Josh over at The Comics Curmudgeon has a "Comment of the Week," complete with runners-up, and that directs people's commenting energy in a positive direction to get onto the front page. As a result, his comments section is hilarious. DailyKos uses their uptick feature to grant people "Trusted User" status, which they can use to lord power over their fellow commenters (like the power to hide nasty comments and fix the tags... I know, fun stuff, but people, including yours truly, are actually willing to work for stuff like that).

I don't know if this will either work or catch on, but YouTube has a feature where your comment is read back to you so you can hear how stupid you sound before you submit a comment. I guess we'll wait for a freeware version of this software to come out (if it ever does) to see if it's a real solution, but it's a start. The expression "Necessity is the mother of invention" is all too obvious in this case since YouTube has, by far, one of the most toxic comments sections online.

The last solution I can think of is to police the comments section and delete insulting comments and ban repeat offenders. We've had to do that, like any other site that wants to have a comments section worth reading. It's not fun, it's not nice, and, trust me, we don't enjoy doing it. But the trade-offs of not having a comments section worth reading and scaring away people who legitimately want to participate are even worse.

If you hate it so much, why not just get rid of it?

Anonymous commenters are a perennial complaint about both the blogosphere and the comments sections of news sites by traditional media folks. They usually argue that since they use their real names, everyone else should, forgetting how many of them (like Larry King and Ann Landers) don't use their real names. Of course, the tradition of noms de plume only applies to real writers and journalists. Everyone else is just a coward.

But if they really want to get rid of nasty comments, blogs and newspapers could just get rid of their comments sections. That would be marginally better than what Morford proposes, since at least it's honest. As much as I make fun of Andrew Sullivan for not having a comments section, we know that he doesn't support that kind of free-wheeling discussion from the start instead of putting it behind a wall and taking credit for promoting web discussion.

In the end, a few flames are going to happen online no matter what steps a site takes to improve its comments section. And that's life - there's no guarantees that you're not ever going to be offended nor should there ever be any such guarantees. Instead, with a little bit of tolerance and some actual listening, we can all work to improve the quality of online discourse.

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Now that that's out of the way, he's a lot younger than I expected. I figured he was a grizzled old fuddy duddy who doesn't understand this newfangled technology.

I agree with you: Having a few LOLers every once in a while is the price you pay for having open comments. Police the way out ones and talk to the others. One of the reasons (I'm totally talking out my behind now) that youtube has such abysmal comments is that there's absolutely no moderator presence. Sometimes just the barest presence removes the incentive to start flame wars.

By the way, I'm not the only one to run over to youtube and see if the comment audio preview thing would take dirty words, right?


Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 16, 2009 2:25 AM

Grissled old fuddy duddys of the world unite! :)

Is it a terrible online sin if I occasionally post a comment with the hope that I will get a few readers to LOL? Actually, I'd rather ROFLMAO, but I'll consider it worthwhile if they just LOL.

And I like the feedback if they LOL back, knowing that some of my jokes work and others don't. Thanks to Vaseline Intensive Care, my penis has the loveliest complexion in town.

LOL. And I can say that with impunity.

Well, I guess your post itself is evidence in support of your thesis that anonymity is not the cause of nastiness, since you include your name and headshot but still feel free to say whatever nasty and immature things come to mind about Morford's article.

My guess is that the commentary on Bilerico is for the most part civil because you attract such a small, limited readership. The bigger and more mainstream the blog, the worse it gets.

My guess is that the commentary on Bilerico is for the most part civil because you attract such a small, limited readership. The bigger and more mainstream the blog, the worse it gets.

I agree with you, GLW. The bigger we've become, the more problems we've had with comment tiffs. I've just considered a growing pain, but we've really tried hard to encourage a civil comments section. So far, Projectors have been pretty respectful - and to a large part I think Alex nails the reason why: all of the ed team members are usually in the comments section daily.

Everyday Transperson | February 16, 2009 11:31 AM

But Bill, have you or perhaps the other presentors here actually entertained the thought that perhaps people who comment strongly may just wish to have articles published and be presentors themselves ???

Perhaps some are frustrated because they continually run into a brick wall when expressing their opinions in a formal blog due to journalists who have a "by invitation only" philosophy which essentially translates to "you can come in and comment, but you can't post anything unless we feel comfortable including you into the corporate / political circle...........

A different perspective that I hope will be given thought .........

Thank you for your time.

Well, I guess your post itself is evidence in support of your thesis that anonymity is not the cause of nastiness, since you include your name and headshot but still feel free to say whatever nasty and immature things come to mind about Morford's article.

Haha. The joke is so much funnier when you explain it!

steve tabarez | February 15, 2009 7:38 PM

That is funny because many newspapers already screen submitted comments for length, grammar, and language. Many more also screen for content, including calls for violence, or defamatory/libelous comments, and if it is related to the topic/subject, and yes, how many words are used. More, Most have waiting periods before it appears, and most pick the ones they want to appear based on whether they just plain like what's said. Of course, if they don't, it's because they've eliminated the people who did those jobs, or decided not to spend the money on the programs to help with his little problem. Maybe he needs to talk with his publisher. As much as I rankle the contributors here, at BP, I am grateful that they allow me to comment. Must be why The Chronicle isn't on my favorites list.

Alex, you ignorant slut!


The stupidity filter reduces to another version of HAPPYNET, the invention of James Kibo Parry. Wikipedia dates it to 1992, but I remember somebody mentioning it on USENET or a LISTSERV around 1989.

What really wastes online discourse is endless process discussions like... this one. :p

Now let's go inform and recruit some more allies and kick some ass.

What really wastes online discourse is endless process discussions like... this one. :p

I'll drink to that, you over-informed slut!

P.s., I remember enough groupwork theory to know that process discussions are an essential luxury. They're part of the glue that keeps groups together.

But I still want justice and freedom NOW.

Such a modern problem!

Letters to the editor:

"Prior to the Cold War paranoia of the mid-20th century, anonymous LTEs were common; in fact, the right to write anonymously was central to the free-press/free-speech movement (as in the 1735 trial against John Peter Zenger, which started with an anonymous essay)."

"James created The New-England Courant, the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. When denied the chance to write a letter to the paper for publication, Franklin invented the pseudonym of "Mrs. Silence Dogood," who was ostensibly a middle-aged widow. Her letters were published, and became a subject of conversation around town. Neither James nor the Courant's readers were aware of the ruse, and James was unhappy with Ben when he discovered the popular correspondent was his younger brother. Franklin left his apprenticeship without permission, and in so doing became a fugitive."

"In 1733, Franklin began to publish the famous Poor Richard's Almanack (with content both original and borrowed) under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, on which much of his popular reputation is based. Franklin frequently wrote under pseudonyms. Although it was no secret that Franklin was the author, his Richard Saunders character repeatedly denied it. "Poor Richard's Proverbs," adages from this almanac, such as "A penny saved is twopence dear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned"), "Fish and visitors stink in three days" remain common quotations in the modern world."

The following letter has to be read to be appreciated. You should read it all the way to its end. "Erika" is the name of a religious sect that opposes slavery and has submitted a petition that slavery be abolished. "Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim," a member of the "Divan of Algiers," wishes that slavery continue and writes a letter explaining why it should not be abolished.

This letter is the last of Benjamin Franklin's famous hoaxes, published less than a month before his death. The letter from "Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim" never existed: Franklin just made it up.
This hoax has a deadly serious purpose: to expose the absurdity of the arguments in defense of the trade in human beings. Dr. Franklin, best known today for his almanac, was an internationally renowned scientist and diplomat of the late eighteenth century.

—JMU editor

Kathy may not be my real name - or it might be. But where is the ambiguity?

I like using my first and last as it is another step in coming out of the closet and being truthful and responsible for my words. During these volatile times of world uncertainty and fighting for civil rights it is important to be clear, focused, and honest. All the activist on newsgroups use first and last. Trolls don't. Call me an old world fuddy duddy, that's OK. But I was brought up to take responsibility for my words and actions and being open to criticism. It's about ethics.

i can't agree more. i am among those who are reasonably anonymous, due to my not being an "out" gay man. i don't want friends, relatives, etc. finding my posts and reaching the conclusion that i'm gay before i'm ready to tell them. in fact, i am out on a limb as it is now, with my first name showing.

i post on a forum on a regular basis with my full name and contact information, but it relates to my occupation, and i welcome input from others, as i could stand to profit on occasion. that's a whole different thing, however.

yes, it can be annoying when we read stupid comments or insulting comments; but that's the price we pay for being a free society to begin with. anyone can insult anyone else at any time and often without consequences. in person, you might get hit; online the worst that can be done is you get insulted back.

let it be.

Don't worry. There are plenty of gay georges out there. :)

George, 8 years in the White House and you sure fooled everyone. Your parents George and Barbara probaly won't guess, although you did some eyebrow raising stuff under the covers with your younger brother Neal.