Here at Boles Blogs, we have always had a strict and unbending Comments Policy — that you had to use your real name, you could not insult other commenters or authors, and absolutely no curse words allowed — among many other rules.
In the past, in order to foment conversation, we have allowed some anonymity — as long as the commenter was polite — but we never allowed anyone to disparage another person. That sort of hatred and heat serve no purpose in trying to talk to each other and share ideas, and that’s the whole point of a comments stream to me as a publisher. I want light and enlightenment, not damnation and darkness.
A recent NYTimes Op-Ed piece confirmed the verity of what’d we have always known — but it sure feels good to have quantitative support for our Comments Policy instead of just qualitative preferences:
Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
We have also experimented with requiring commenters to be logged in before commenting. For many years, commenters rebelled against that idea, and punished us by not leaving a comment.
To quiet the hateful din over the last few years, many of the big blogs have required commenters to login — usually via direct registration or a verified social networking account — and that seems to be working. The conversation moves forward, people own their words, and the nastiness drills down to nil because you leave yourself no place to hide when you go cruel.
Here at Boles Blogs, we have recently required people to be logged in via WordPress.com or Facebook or Twitter in order to leave a comment. Readers have always been required by WordPress.com to be logged in to the system in order to “LIKE” an article of ours, so we are consciously making a decision to, once again, require identity in order to join in the discussion.
In the past, when we’ve required authorization of identity to comment, our readership plummeted — as if there were a direct negotiation between anonymous involvement and active readership — but today, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Our readership numbers are steady, if not rising, after requiring commenters to be logged in, and our Hate Comments have dropped to Absolute Zero and we also don’t have hundreds of “caught” Akismet Spam messages to delete every day.
With the rise of social networking over the last few years, people commenting on our articles dropped — logged in or not — because it was easier to rage to your Twitter followers and Facebook friends than to stand your ground in a public square comments stream and defend your arguments, but that’s the changing way of the social world. What was once valued is diminished and gone and what was once verboten is now cherished and celebrated — that’s why it’s always important to know what you want, to go your own way, and to own your own behavior, because then none of the changes around you adversely influence who you are and what you have always intended your being to be online.