The Seattle Times Sports Columnist Steve Kelley recently hung up his typewriter after 31 years on the job. As a sports fan growing up in Seattle, I read a lot of Steve Kelley. He was a great sports writer and the city is sad to see him go.
In an interview with Seattle Weekly, Steve was asked the reasons surrounding his departure. Steve gave a few reasons— but one caught my attention: the readers comments section.
“The reader comments section, it’s a free-for-all,” Kelley says. “The level of discourse has become so inane and nasty. And it’s not just at the Times, it’s ESPN, everywhere – people, anonymous people, take shots at the story, writers, each other. Whatever you’ve achieved in that story gets drowned out by this chorus of idiots.”
[pullquote]“The reader comments section, it’s a free-for-all,” Kelley says. “The level of discourse has become so inane and nasty. And it’s not just at the Times, it’s ESPN, everywhere – people, anonymous people, take shots at the story, writers, each other. Whatever you’ve achieved in that story gets drowned out by this chorus of idiots.”[/pullquote]
Steve Kelley certainly isn’t alone in disliking the comments section. But I was a little surprised that it was on the short list of reasons he chose to retire. But maybe I shouldn’t surprised.
As we know, newspapers have been fighting for survival (and mostly losing) for a number of years. The internet has been a game changer for how we consume news and information. Newspapers have tried just about everything to drive revenue and monetize its online platform. The comments section has been a tool to increase readership and online engagement. But many writers question its qualitative value.
For writers who came up writing for print, the concept of an anonymous comments section presents a distraction and gives undue authorship to the readers. It’s one thing to get hate mail after writing a provocative or controversial piece (a hazard of the trade), but to have the lines of your o work spawn into hate speech and personal attacks well exceeding the length of the article itself—is well, like a room full of amateur movie critics spewing commentary into the dark of the theatre. It’s obnoxious and alters the experience the writer intended to create.
But in recent years we’ve come to expect the comments section. Like it or not, the reason behind them is pretty simple. It drives page engagement and readership. These things drive ad revenue—and for traditional newspapers trying to hold on for dear life—ad revenue is everything.
Different publications handle comments differently in an attempt to allow for engagement while minimizing the “chorus of idiots”. Huffington Post requires you to set up an account in order to comment (and encourages you to sign-up via Facebook or Twitter), and then gives badges to its most popular commenters. It also organizes comments—putting the best comments at the top—and suppressing the inappropriate.
The Seattle Times requires its commenters to register, but is less sophisticated in how it ranks/order comments and it doesn’t offer authentication via Twitter and Facebook like Huffington Post.
Writers like Steve Kelley are right to be angered by how the Seattle Times and other online papers handle the comments section. But the fact is that comments are here to stay.
What the Huffington Post is doing presents a way for popular commenters to rise to the top and allows for a form of “authentication” to occur via Twitter and Facebook. But it doesn’t completely eliminate the “chorus of idiots.”
But soon, very soon I believe, there will be a solution: an authenticated online identity. Platforms like online newspapers and rating sites like Yelp, are undermined by the anonymous commenter. The comment troll—as he’s called. These internet platforms have stayed away from authentication because (1) it deters engagement and (2) there hasn’t been a meaningful way to do it. Do you require a registered phone number? Do you require a work email address?
The notion is that if the user is authenticated, he’ll be more concerned about his reputation and will govern himself accordingly. There are assholes everywhere, so authentication isn’t going to eliminate the “chorus of idiots” but it’s going to hold them socially accountable—which makes a big difference to conduct (just ask Frod0).
So the question is going to be how. How do we create an authenticable online identity? One way is through a universal online reputation tracker. Take Google Authorship, for example. You create your account—and you link your activity to it. Based on your engagement with companies, articles, and individuals—you establish your reputation online. The better online citizen you become—the more strength you have online. Your articles matter more, your comments matter more—and by “matter more” I mean—are given more weight by Google. You rank higher in searches—and potentially—so too would your comments on any news or other comment-friendly platform.
So no longer would it be registered user “KelleyHater345” leaving comments at the bottom of an article. It would be Alex Johnson, of San Francisco, who works at Adobe, and who has 350 connections on Google Plus.
Certainly there are privacy concerns. We don’t want Google watching over our
internet activity like big brother. But it does make sense that when we decide to take actions online that can meaningfully influence commerce and social discourse, that we be held accountable. The majority of the internet will always remain anonymous (there are more porn websites than all others, afterall) but authentication for the platforms that drive our social and economic lives just makes sense.