Kevin MacMillan: Looking back at the decision to kill anonymous comments
June 10, 2014
Right around this time three years ago, we made a somewhat unpopular decision that impacted digital readers of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.
Our move to kill anonymous commenting from our websites received a great deal of criticism — although, perhaps not so ironically, hardly any of that feedback was done through letters to the editor or other forms of a public forum.
But boy, did we get some nasty phone calls and anonymous messages berating us for the decision. Some accused us of censorship, while others questioned our commitment to the First Amendment.
Still others just simply told us we were making "stupid decisions" with a "bonehead mentality" that would force them to "no longer read your worthless rag of a newspaper" which is "only good to line birdcages … and start fires with now."
Yes, I remember the emails. And these are the ones without profanity, mind you.
We axed anonymous commenting for several reasons, but the main one was due to how ridiculous some of the comments were becoming — in terms of subject matter, language and, in a few unfortunate cases, unfair and unconfirmed accusations of crimes or other indecent acts against residents, business owners and public figures.
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I will admit we did find some value to those comments. From time to time, our reporters would learn more about an issue or get a better background lesson by way of an educated comment from a reader who'd clearly been living in the community longer than us. Further, and more importantly, we'd be called out on corrections in those comments, which allowed us to correct our stories sooner rather than later.
But when we have to stop doing our job of telling stories, sharing information and partnering with the community to instead police an online forum full of vicious comments — a forum that also doesn't require a person to use his or her real name — it's counterproductive, to say the least.
I still do get a request or comment every now and then from a reader asking if we'll ever bring back anonymous commenting. While I don't foresee that happening, it is a bit refreshing that those questions are coming now in a responsible and civil manner.
And to be fair, we did also receive a good deal of feedback from community members thanking us for our move, mainly due to the raucous nature of the comments that were taking away from, rather than lending credibility to, a good conversation.
But that was three years ago. Why am I bringing all this up? Mainly for two reasons:
1. It never hurts to reanalyze past business decisions, whether they are good or bad, popular or unpopular, or with or without an ambition to change them. It allows us to review how we communicated a choice to our readers, and gives an opportunity to adjust how we pull certain triggers in the future, should any need a tug.
2. It also never hurts to remind readers you can still comment on our stories online, but through Facebook, and for most people (unless you're clever — "Tiger Blood," we're talking about you), that means having your name attached to the feedback.
I bring up this second point because there is a really good online discussion happening now on our Facebook page regarding the recent topic of motorists and cyclists sharing the road.
We published a couple letters to the editor on the topic to our page last week to stimulate further discussion on what we knew to be an emotional topic. The level of commentary has been robust and informative. Here are just a few highlights:
• "We deal with road construction all week, then have to deal with the bikes on the weekend. I drove to Reno on Sunday, they definitely were not obeying the share the road rules. It's intimidating, trying to drive safely when they are all over the road."
• "The behavior I have seen these past few years is appalling and creates incredible tension on the road for everyone."
• " (If) as a cyclist, you disregard cycling etiquette and antagonize motorists you are asking to get hit. Ride single file and be courteous if you want your event to be invited back."
• "… There just needs to be some serious intervention and problem solving to fix these issues and consequences if people don't follow the rules of the road."
While we wish all our stories and letters saw this amount of feedback, it's comforting to know not everyone has to be bound to a fake name to contribute.
— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.