The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

April 20, 2010
Blog back: Online comments

Blog backs review your thoughtful and provocative online comments, amplify points, answer questions, correct our mistakes and humbly accept your warranted criticism.

April 14 Poll: Are anonymous online comments worthwhile?

As of this morning, 56 percent of those responding to our poll said that online comments on sacbee.com are useless. Here are a few of the comments on comments, with our thoughts sprinkled in:

How do you know someone isn't using a pseudonym?

You wouldn't unless you forced registration with a credit card. That's part of the challenge of asking contributors to identify themselves. And just because someone sets up an account doesn't mean that they are the only person posting through it.

Jon, (h)ow are you defining anonymous? It would be OK to post with just a user name, with Sacbee having the e-mail address that they don't give out. The publisher could have an activation e-mail sent to the account for verification. Don't think you need much beyond that. It will give the publisher some control to help with moderation.

"Anonymous" in this context is the ability to post comments that are read by the public on sacbee.com without the commenter's true name attached to their words.

Letters published in the newspaper, for example, are not anonymous. The Bee requires that an author submit his or her real name, postal address and daytime phone number. The author's real name is published with their comments. It's not a foolproof system, but it attempts to ensure that identity is the price of access to the forum. (Click here for more about rules for offering a letter for publication.)

Online comments carry no such price, but they don't have the same payoff, either. Click-throughs on most posts on The State Worker account for less than 1 percent of the total hits on the blog. So, unless a comment is hoisted to blog back status, a relatively small number of online visitors see it. Cheaper access, smaller forum, smaller audience.

Click the following link to read more blog backs.

Some blog users reduced this question to a matter of simple economics:

99.9% of comments are not worth reading, but that's not the point. The point of comments and online interaction is to drive traffic to the site and create revenue for the paper. If anonymity makes users more likely to visit the site, they should be allowed.

I find that reading comments here usually makes me sad, angry or disgusted. I forced myself to stop for a while but it's tough to kick the habit and it's kind of cathartic to post my own rants occasionally. If you are concerned with your number of web hits... I wouldn't take them away, because they definitely bring people back to an article they've already read.

And then there's the school of thinking that says The Bee seeks to incite readers to comment:

The Bee would be in serious trouble without comments from anonymous posters. Most of the poorly written articles are obviously intended to drive the comments section.

That runs counter to this anonymous commenter's notion that media are afraid of negative posts:

Typical liberal cowardism (sic) to fear anonymous postings, just because a few losers post non-nice things.

Some blog users find the comments sections demoralizing:

... Mostly, the comments depress me, especially the ones targeting my job as a state employee. I was always proud of what I do for a living; I thought I made a difference. This last year or so, though, it's been real tough to hear what J.Q. Public really thinks about me. It's hard to keep it in perspective and not take it personally.

This commenter frames the debate in civil rights terms:

Don't fear free speech by your readers. Keep the comments.

Of course, free speech doesn't mean speech that is free of responsibility. That's the tension in this debate -- how does a news or opinion website further the public discourse? What lines should it draw? How much, if at all, should profit shape policy? What impact, if any, do anonymous comments have on journalism, public policy and individuals?

Commenting online isn't a right; it's an option exercised by the commenter and allowed by The Bee. Cut them out, and we'd miss posts like this:

Anonymous posting makes people say cruel, off-colour things they otherwise would not. I believe if everyone were to post under their true identity as I do rather than some nom de guerre, we all would be a little more civil.

Sincerely,

Queen Elizabeth II

Thanks for weighing in, your Highness.

On October 14, The Sacramento Bee will temporarily remove commenting from sacbee.com. While we design the upgrade, we encourage you to tell us what you like and don't like about commenting on sacbee.com and other websites. We've heard from hundreds of you already and we're listening. Please continue to add your thoughts and questions here. We also encourage you to write Letters to the Editor on this and other topics.



About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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