When The Huffington Post announced that all commenters — not just new registrants — would be required starting Dec. 10 to link their profiles to Facebook accounts verified with a phone number and have their real names displayed when commenting, the reaction was fierce. Commenters, many of whom had left thousands of comments and amassed thousands of “fans” over five or more years on the site, felt betrayed.
When I asked about the reasoning behind the policy via email last month, HuffPost Director of Community Tim McDonald referred me to comments from Arianna Huffington reported by GigaOm earlier in the year: “Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats.” And: “I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and [are] not hiding behind anonymity. …We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”
But the more than 1,100 comments on a Poynter story reporting the new policy don’t seem to be written by trolls or children. Here’s a representative example:
HuffPo must be nuts if they think people will feel comfortable discussing controversial topics such as personal relationships, politics or religion using their real names that can eventually be traced to their Facebook account where employers can punish people they disagree with.
Anonymity is a major loss for some HuffPost commenters. They face the choice of leaving a community they had come to call home or setting up a Facebook account and revealing their names at a place where anonymity previously had made them comfortable discussing sensitive topics. (Users also have speculated that Facebook and HuffPost cut some kind of business deal. McDonald told the Epoch Times that wasn’t the case.)
McDonald told me HuffPost expected some outcry, but said it is “confident that as we move forward, this will make for a more engaged and diverse community.” So HuffPost is choosing to lose some hardcore readers, such as those commenting on Poynter posts, in exchange for debate less likely to go off the rails. But how likely is civil discussion to happen? And what’s the danger when debate gets too tidy?
An in-depth report on online commenting policies published in October by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (available for free) summarized news organizations’ feeling toward anonymity:
Real name registration vs. allowing anonymity is a divisive issue, with no consensus of which was preferable. There is a general feeling that requiring real names leads to a better quality of conversation, though smaller in terms of numbers. However, many organisations believe it is important to offer anonymity as an option to those who might not be able to speak freely under their real names.
Among the findings of the report: articles on politics attract the most comments. That’s a topic HuffPost users mentioned time and again as one they’d hesitate to comment on if their bosses could come across their views with a simple Google name search. Said commenter Popgirl reacting to one Poynter.org story:
I have a lot of Republican clients and/or very conservative ciients. Why would I have my identity known when discussing political views and views on abortion, etc, on a very public forum? I dropped off of Facebook a long time ago anyway for privacy concerns.
The WAN-IFRA report notes that Haaretz in Israel offers users the choice of either anonymous commenting or Facebook commenting; unsurprisingly, 99 percent choose anonymity. Meanwhile, Disqus, the social commenting plugin that powers Poynter.org’s comments, said in 2012 that 61 percent of comments are left by readers using pseudonyms, while 35 percent are left by completely anonymous readers. Just 4 percent chose to use a real name.
So what has happened to news organizations that chose to ban anonymity altogether? From the WAN-IFRA report:
Zero Hora, Brazil, switched from a registration-free system to one that requires a full name, email address and ID number: “We used to have a huge number of comments but they were very poor – it wasn’t a relevant debate. So we decided to close that and now we have this registration requirement for everyone who wants to comment. This is also strategic so that we have fewer comments and we can monitor them with more attention.”
At HuffPost, where homepage stories used to routinely attract thousands of comments, relatively few front-page stories seem to be cracking quadruple digits now, as HuffPost “ex-pats” have rather gleefully — and anecdotally — noted. (For a nonscientific example, contrast this mid-day homepage from mid-November with this one from mid-December.) Certainly being able to divert fewer resources to comment moderation is an advantage, but HuffPost seems more concerned with the quality of comments than the quantity.
(Via email, I asked HuffPost’s McDonald to give me some idea of what he has observed in comment drop off, but he hasn’t gotten back to me. We’ll add his response if he does.) See update below for a statement from McDonald.
Interestingly, TechCrunch, an AOL property like HuffPost, offers a relevant example of what happens after employing new anti-troll tactics. The site switched to Facebook comments (different from HuffPost’s commenting system that links verified Facebook accounts to existing site profiles) in 2011, but two years later declared: “Commenters, We Want You Back.”
But we eventually discovered that our anti-troll tactic worked too well; The bullies and asshats left our comments sections, but so did everyone else. Now, several years later, after dozens of endless meetings and conference calls, we’ve decided we’re going to try out Livefyre instead of Facebook Comments.
Well, that didn’t last: TechCrunch returned to Facebook comments just last month after Livefyre proved slow and unstable. The takeaway: there’s no easy, enduring solution to the vexing problem of comments.
TechCrunch also offers a particularly useful lesson in transparency and requiring real names as palatable as possible to users. A week into its first switch to Facebook comments, TechCrunch asked its readers whether anti-troll measures were working too well, resulting in “overly sycophantic,” gushing comments. That’s some admirable transparency.
Meanwhile, HuffPost users are leaving the site, expressing anger at what they see as a lack of transparency — and broken promises, since they expected to be grandfathered into the new commenting system based on remarks by HuffPost Managing Editor Jimmy Soni. Of course, it’s too early to draw any conclusions on whether the new commenting system will substantially affect site traffic: early Quantcast data seems to show a not insignificant dropoff since the change, but seasonal factors may also play a part.
While few news organizations have created the level of commenting communities fostered by HuffPost, one major lesson has emerged from the site’s commenting policy: taking loyal readers by surprise leads to unnecessary resentment. Why not communicate big changes transparently and in advance to minimize backlash and afford readers — in this case readers who helped build HuffPost into the media behemoth that it is today — a little more respect?
UPDATE, Jan. 13: HuffPost’s McDonald sent me this statement via email:
We are very happy with the results so far. Comments are better, commenters are more cilivil, moderation has become easier, and the community is very healthy. We continue to work on improvements to provide a great reading and commenting experience and the positive results are visible to anyone who visits our site today. One of our commenters sums up what we are seeing and hope more experience:
“Everyone can say what they want – but I have noticed the respect level on comments has gone way up, and people are treating each other much more humanely. I am not noticing as many cheap, insulting blows to people….rather they are expressing opinions in a more intelligent and thought out manner.” – Christina R.
Previously: Commenters on HuffPost mobile apps will soon need Facebook verification too | Want to comment on HuffPost? Just give Facebook your phone number first | Huffington Post will end anonymous comments