Last week I published I blog post titled Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society in reaction to the fact that PostMedia’s newspapers( including the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, etc…) now requires readers to login with a Facebook account to make comments.
The piece had a number of thoughtful and additive comments – which is always rewarding for an author to read.
Two responses, however, came from those in the newspaper industry. One came from someone claiming to be the editor of a local newspaper. I actually believe that this person is such an editor and their comments were sincere and additive. That said, there is some irony that they did not comment using their real name, while talking about how helpful and important it is that real names/identities be used. Of course they did use an identity of sorts – their role – although this is harder to verify.
Again, both comments were thoughtful sincere and engaging – exactly what you want from a comment, especially those that don’t entirely agree with post. I also felt like while they raised legitimate interests and concerns, they, in part, missed my point. Both ultimately ended up in the same place: that handing commenting over to Facebook made life easier for newspapers since it meant less spam and nonconstructive comments.
I agree – if the lens by which you are looking at the problem is one of management, Facebook is the easier route. No doubt. My point is that it also comes at a non-trivial cost, one that potentially sees power asymmetries in a society reinforced. Those with privilege, who have financial and social freedom to be critical, will do so. Those who may be more marginalized may not feel as safe. This tradeoff was barely addressed in these responses.
As I noted in my piece, other sites appear to have found ways to foster commenting communities that are positive and additive without requiring people to use their real identities (although giving them the freedom to do so if they wish). But of course these sites have invested in developing their community. And as I tried to stress in my last post – if you are unhappy with the comments on your website – you really have yourself to blame, it’s the community you created. Anil Dash has good thoughts on this too.
As a result, it is sometimes hard to hear of newspapers talk about people not willing to pay for the news and complain of diminishing revenue while at the same time appearing blind to recognizing that what makes for a great website is not just the content (which, especially in the news world be commoditized) but rather that community that gathers around and discusses it. Restricting that community to Facebook users (or more specifically, people willing to use their Facebook account to comment – a far smaller subset) essentially limits the part of your website that can be the most unique and the most attractive to users – the community. This is actually a place where brand loyalty and market opportunities could be built, and yet I believe PostMedia’s move will make it harder, not easier to capitalize on this asset.
I also found some of specific’s of PostMedia’s comments hard to agree with. Alex Blonski noted that they had commenters pretending to be columnists, that they were overwhelmed with spam, and claiming that Discus – the commenting system I use on my site has similar requirements to Facebook. The later is definitely not true (while you may use your real identity, I don’t require you to, I don’t even require a legit email address) and the former two comments feel eminently manageable by any half decent commenting system.
Indeed Alexander Howard – the Gov 2.0 journalist who uses the twitter handle @digiphile seems to manage just fine on his own. He recently updated his policies around moderation – and indeed his (and Mathew Ingram’s) opinions on commenting should be read by everyone in every newspaper – not just PostMedia. In the end, here is a single journalist who has more than three times the twitter followers of the Vancouver Sun (~151,000 vs. ~43,000) so is likely dealing with a non-trivial amount of comments and other social media traffic. If he can handle it, surely PostMedia can to?