One year of verified online comments; success or failure?

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The Sun Journal has spurred better online debate, but among fewer voices. What should happen now with its policy toward online comments?

In 1964, in New York City, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered. While this sort of tragedy is unfortunately too common, what made her case unique is many of her neighbors heard her cries for help, yet did nothing.

The case shocked the country. It also asked uncomfortable questions about bystanders, and whether consistent exposure to crime, or violence, or plain bad behavior can desensitize to the point where a person is neither capable, nor willing, to intervene.

We think some parallels can be drawn from this issue to that of Internet commentary, in which news organizations can be bystanders while bad behavior occurs anonymously on their websites, by people more interested in raising Cain than the level of civic discourse.

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One year ago, the Sun Journal took the unusual step of requiring commenters to disclose their real names before offering their online opinions. A Sun Journal employee calls every potential commenter to validate their information before commenting privileges are granted.

This is the same process by which letters to the editor — a staple of American newspapers — have operated. It is unusual for online commentary because the culture of the web and the evolution of Facebook, Twitter and others have made instant interaction the industry standard.

And this standard is changing the world. Few would argue that the uprisings last year across the Middle East sprouted from instant online organizing through social networks, and the looming presence of Facebook’s initial public offering promises to be seismic to the economy.

Yet for news organizations, the ability of its audience to publish instant commentary on the news of the day hasn’t yet yielded its Tahrir Square moment. More often, the debate is dominated by few, speaking to many, saying things outside any definition of decorum.

The Sun Journal’s policy was born from a desire to change the nature of this online debate, by taking control of the situation and quit acting like uninvolved bystanders to the disrespectful behavior occurring daily on our website.

One year later, our data is interesting. Although our total comments have halved in number, our regular readers report this system has resulted in better discussions. In a live chat on sunjournal.com about this topic last Wednesday, readers applauded the decision.

“Hiding behind an anonymous nickname or handle to name-call, bully and harass has no place in a polite society,” said Dale Erskine, during the chat. “Good, fair, reasonable people can disagree and make points without nastiness.”

“At first, I was not a fan of it,” said Michael Hobbs. “But I have grown to appreciate it.”

While we appreciate this support, we also realize that fewer comments does mean less debate about the issues facing our community. And our measurements of online comments over the past year also show that a minority of voices are doing a majority of the talking.

This indicates, perhaps, our policy is too restrictive. It is possible there are voices in our community that are unheard because they cannot, or will not, wait to have their identity verified, or fear reprisal for expressing their opinion.

It’s a conundrum. While we’ve drained the swamp of our online commentary, and revealed solid ground upon which to build a better online community, there’s still work ahead to both foster even more debate, with even more voices.

The question is how.

To that end, we encourage readers to visit our website and take our short survey about online comments. It is available at sunjournal.com/commenting2012.

We’d like to know what you think of our policy, what you’d change if anything, and your thoughts on online comments in general. Please be as detailed as you can.

Our year-long devotion to improving our online debate has been a success, we believe. But this doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about what remains important not only for the vibrancy of our websites, but also of our entire community.

The Kitty Genovese case made an entire city look inward at itself and think about what it means to be neighbors, or a society, and realize that without action, nothing gets better. We’d like to think our effort last year to verify our commenters’ identities is that initial action.

What we do from here, with your support, will only serve to improve the quality of debate, and the quality of life, in the communities we serve.

Anthony Ronzio is the new media director for Sun Media Group, which publishes the Sun Journal. Pattie Reaves is the web editor for the Sun Journal.

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