More accountability coming to comments

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Scott Angus
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Big changes are coming to the world of anonymous comments in Janesville, and I canít wait.

Just Thursday, my frustration with the pettiness and nastiness on The Gazetteís website reached a new peak. I spent a half hour trying to make a discussion on state politics reasonable and civil by removing inappropriate comments. When I couldnít keep up, I gave up.

I threw my hands in the air, and when they landed on my keyboard, I eliminated all comments on the story. Iíd had it.

Several times, Iíve been tempted to eliminate comments on our website altogether, but cooler heads have prevailed. They advised me to be patient and wait until our new website launches later this spring.

Thatís when the changes will come, and Iím confident they will lead to a big improvement in the quality of discourse by visitors to gazettextra.com.

We launched our online commenting system in 2007 with high hopes. It marked the first time in community history that people of all interests and persuasions could get together to discuss important issues without being acquainted or located in the same room.

It didnít take long for some of my hopes to be dashed. While many people stayed rational, reasonable and on point, many others did not. Comments regularly strayed off course, and two or three people too often dominated the debate with personal and nasty exchanges that did nothing to advance the discussion.

Granted, weíve always had ways to deal with bad apples. We can remove comments, and we can ban users. That, however, is labor intensive, and we donít have a lot of labor to spare. Itís also not foolproof. People weíve banned have come back with different emails and user names and continued to annoy other visitors and us.

Weíve heard from many people through the years, including a handful of officials and leaders, who implored us to end the comments or, at a minimum, require people to use their real names. The negative tenor reflects badly on the community, they argue, and makes it more difficult to attract people and businesses to the area.

I donít disagree entirely, but many other communities have the same issues with their newspapersí websites. And most of those papers donít monitor the comments as closely as we do. Beyond that, requiring people to use their names with our current content management system wasnít feasible.

Because of the complaints and hassles, many of us have been looking forward to the changes. They will be tied to our change to a new system and a paid website. Some content on the site will remain free, but our best stories and information will be available only to paying customers.

That will hold true for commenting, as well. Only subscribers will be allowed to contribute to our online conversations. Iíll offer details on the types of subscriptions weíll offer in a future column. For now, Iím sticking to the issue of comments.

Our thinking is that limiting comments to only people who pay will eliminate the vast majority of nasty comments. Many of the so-called trolls and other troublemakers arenít likely to pony up. Additionally, weíll know who the commenters areóeven if they donít use their real namesóand they will know that we know. That should have a moderating effect, as well.

For now, our plan is to let people post using assumed names. There is value in anonymity in that people feel freer to comment on sensitive issues if using their real names might cause friction at home or in their work places. If we continue to see too many ugly and inappropriate comments, we can take the next step and require people to use their real names.

We donít yet have a launch date for our new site, but itís coming soon. I hope it will be like a breath of that fresh spring air weíve all been eagerly awaiting.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 9:19 am Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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