Anonymous comments on websites do nothing to further public discourse

Newspapers have been trying to figure out this whole World Wide Web thing since the dawn of the Digital Age.

Way back in the 1990s we were struggling (really) with questions like should we or should we not have a website. What content should we put on it if we do? All of our content or just some of it? Should we post it before we publish it in the dead-tree edition? Wouldn’t that be beating ourselves? Should we charge for it?

We got some of it right and some of it not so right. And some of it is still a work in progress.

That brings me to the topic du jour. A few years ago, when yours truly was making those decisions at The Daily Sentinel, there was an animated internal debate about how to handle commenters on stories and opinion pieces on GJSentinel.com. Should we vet the comments before publishing them, or should they go up without anyone taking a look? Should commenters be required, as people who write letters to the editor are, to sign their real names, or should they be given anonymity?

With a great deal of discomfort, I caved to the argument that the web was a wonderfully chaotic free-for-all, a virtual democracy where there was room for every voice, no matter how shrill, no matter how far out of the mainstream.

What’s more, it would police itself. If people strayed too far from whatever ill-defined boundaries there were, the users themselves would take care of the problem.

It didn’t work like that. What’s more, it ran headlong into a newspaper’s long-held tradition of being the community custodian and, to a great extent, moderator and leader of the civic discussion. That was, and is, a role newspapers have played on their editorial pages and in other forums in communities for decades, if not centuries.

That role did not include allowing people to get away with what they have gotten away with in comments on GJSentinel.com. Just last week, for example, a commenter who likes to call himself “imthinkn” called yours truly a “socialist goon” for supporting the School District 51 mill levy override. I’ve probably been called worse. (Actually, I don’t know that I have.)

But the point is, Mr. Thinkn really isn’t thinking at all. And that kind of comment doesn’t deserve to be published. Nor do many others by him and a lot of others on GJSentinel.com. Not because it’s me who was the recipient of his ill manners. I’m used to it. And if the truth be known, I’ve occasionally responded to their comments. So I guess I’ve been down in the gutter with them, although with my name attached.

Speaking of names, their “names” are humorous. They think highly of themselves. There is Mr. “Thinkn” and others like “Ralf The Wise and Powerful,” “smoke & mirrors” and “phaethon,” just to name a few. For the most part, we don’t know who these people are. Some of them might be my friends, for all I know. But they all march proudly and with great courage behind the banner of anonymity. Or they used to.

Publisher Jay Seaton has decided their sometimes ill-informed, and often vicious comments and the general lowering of the discourse to gutter level does nothing to serve the community or GJSentinel.com. They will still be free to say whatever they want, so long as they get their facts right, which they often don’t. But they, like the rest of us who put words on paper and then publish them for the world to see, will have to attach their names, their real names.

That’s a good move on the part of the Sentinel, one I should have made years ago.

Every week I get a few emails from truly thoughtful people. They really do think about issues. Some of them agree with me, some of them don’t. Some of them make me rethink my positions. Some of them tell me I’ve made them rethink theirs. They don’t send the emails to the website. I don’t know why. But I can’t help but think one of the reasons might be they don’t want to be a part of the cesspool the comments have become.

Maybe by making people be responsible for what they say, those people will join the conversation on GJSentinel.com and we all can benefit from the thoughts of people who have a lot to say that really is worth listening to.

Think about that.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. Email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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