Jack Lail
A column in last week’s New York Times kicked off another round of industry discussions on the merits of anonymous online commentary, says Jack Lail.

The column, written by Google product design manager Julie Zhou, called for content providers to stop allowing anonymous comments on their sites. She suggested that comment services and greater engagement with readers can reduce the number of “trolls” in your comments sections.

Lail, multimedia editor for the Knoxville News Sentinel, writes that his company, E.W. Scripps, is currently undertaking a corporate-wide examination of commenting strategies to identify best practices that might allow productive discussions “without stifling debate.”

That, however, is the catch. Newspaper editors and readers have no problem agreeing that some commentary -- such as hate speech or comments that reflect racism or obscenity -- is inappropriate on a news website. There's a greater percentage of comments that qualify as ignorant, but perhaps not racist, or rude but not necessarily obscene.

It's still not clear whether demanding the use of real names in online comments will be enough to curb some of that less productive behavior, or whether it needs to be curbed at all. Facebook, for example, entirely bans anonymous accounts or commentary, but the service has not found itself immune from incidents of hate speech.

Lail reports that Knoxnews.com has spent the past year working to improve its comments section through technology-related changes and greater staff involvement. But, he writes, these efforts come with a cost:

“As the quality has improved, we've also seen less conversation. The number of comments on our sites were down 17 percent last month from a year ago while the number of unique visits were up by over 20 percent. That means more people using our sites equals less conversation. Multiple factors, I'm sure, are at work in that equation, but I suspect the stronger approaches we're taking have had a dampening effect on comments. Is that the desired result?”

Lail has taken note of several reactions to Zhou's column on the Web and has bookmarked those, as well as other items relating to online comments, on his Delicious.com page.