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By Andy Alexander

My Sunday column about online comments is still generating e-mails from readers. I argued in favor of allowing “moronic, anonymous, unsubstantiated and often venomous comments” on grounds that they can sometimes be “insightful and illuminating.” I also said “anonymity allows unfiltered candor that reflects what’s on readers’ minds.”

Almost all of the e-mails I’m receiving sharply disagree.

Greg Scandlen of Hagerstown echoed many others when he wrote: “This practice is precisely what has turned the Internet into a sewer. It amounts to journalistic graffiti.”

Hal Straus, who oversees commenting on washingtonpost.com, noted another reason for allowing anonymous comments: “Some people simply can’t sign their names to political comments without risking their jobs.” This is especially true in Washington, with its huge number of government workers. But readers from all over the world also visit The Post’s Web site, and many living in less open societies might find themselves in hot water at home if their name is attached to a critical comment.

“Requiring identification would narrow the commenter pool and therefore the breadth of the conversation,” Straus said. The result might be a conversation that’s more “civil.” But, Straus said, “it would also exclude many whose opinion would be valuable.”

Another obvious problem: It’s almost impossible to verify that someone registering with a Web site is who they say they are. Many news Web sites, including The Post, are exploring ways to tighten the authentication system. But some of the obvious methods are costly (and, of course, The Post currently is losing money). An example: Requiring commenters to provide a phone number when they register, then hiring people to call that number and make sure they answer the phone. It’s an expensive proposition.

As my column argued, the more productive approach might be to find ways to shape the conversation through techniques like "curating" comments to highlight those that are civil and relevant, thus diminishing those that are abusive or off-point.

Incidentally, Post columnist Courtland Milloy jumped into the Web commenting debate today. His take on abusive comments: Enough, already!

My Sunday column laid out several ideas for how to improve washingtonpost.com's commenting. Readers weighed in with their own ideas in their online comments. Among some of the best:


  • tslats suggested allowing readers to choose if they want to see only the comments recommended by readers. For “bigger topics,” tslats wrote, it would be good to offer “Editor Selections” comments that Post editors feel are on point.

  • Parziale suggested replacing the current “recommend” feature with a 1-to-5 star rating system. “This would allow users to not only express their approval of a comment but also the strength or salience of a comment.”

  • donnolo noted that The Post’s site has a “Report Abuse” button for readers to alert monitors to unacceptable comments. The suggestion: “Any comment receiving ten or more ‘abuse’ clicks is automatically deleted.”

  • RJNoll said that if Post writers “would participate in the comments and actually engage readers in the conversation, it might help raise the tone of the debate. When people know a real person is reading and responding to their comments, they tend to be more civil.”

  • GaryEMasters urged a limit on posting comments in rapid succession. He suggested this rule: “We restrict rapid posting of multiple comments for quality reasons. You have already posted a comment within the last three minutes. Please try again later.”

  • Several urged that readers be given the option to have comments sorted first-to-last from the top, instead of the current last-to-first arrangement.

  • GHF_LRLTD raised the idea of “adding a Letters to the Editor-like section where unique and thoughtful comments could be posted outside of the piece that generated them.”

  • hgillette suggested allowing readers to give a “negative recommendation as well as positive. As it is, you don’t know if a comment with (only) a few recommendations was not liked, or just was not read.”

By Andy Alexander  | May 13, 2009; 2:40 PM ET
 
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Comments

I sure wouldn't post without at least some assurance of anonymity. It's not so much an issue of my employer getting upset. I just don't trust the wingnuts out there.

Having one of them kick my door down because they don't like my comments is NOT an option.

Posted by: laboo | May 15, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I am opposed to the idea of limiting the access to the comments section of those who might express themselves in a manner unlike say, Henry Kissinger or Kissinger wannabees. The result would be a lifeless and boring debating society of policy wonks. Hearing from the working stiff is a GOOD thing, not a bad thing, methinks.
There are rules in place already that seem appropriate. It would be akin to having only those who live in one of those gated communities be eligible to offer their opinions on the issues of the day. And, as we can imagine, those might be heavily weighted in the Wall street welfare queen category.

Posted by: bokannon | May 17, 2009 9:36 PM | Report abuse

When reading many articles on various political websites I am always moved to read the comments. For years, the debates were fairly civil with excellent feedback on both sides of most stories. There were always the occassional hard core writers who went over the limit, but they were the outliers. However, in the last several months, it appears the level of vitriol across the net has risen above what would be normal abuse.

The coordination of "abusive" comments is too organized to just be random posters. For example, in reading the WAPO article on Obama's "special olympics" bowling (posted at 12:30 in the morning), I believe there were 140 negative responses between 12:30am- 2:00pm. I can't believe there were that many people watching Jay Leno, who went straight to the WAPO to post comments about an article. The timing made no sense. Also, there were only negative comments, that is statistically abnormal.

Has anyone tried to determine if there special interest groups that are running search engines, scouring for mentions of political figures or hot topics, which then triggers this flood of vitriolic responses?

Posted by: fide | May 18, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

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