Unidentified folk’s outrage

Why do websites let angry, disruptive, anonymous commenters just say whatever the hell they want, anyway?

You’d never get this in real life. Online, that’s a bird of a different feather.

You’d never get this in real life. Online, that’s a bird of a different feather.

With growing awareness about online bullying and with growing wariness of ugly and profane online commenting known as “trolling,” people’s rights to anonymous free speech are being re-evaluated and redefined.

On websites around the country, anonymous-posted gossip and threats have lead to lawsuits, administrators have shut down message boards and Web users’ attitudes about commenters—and what their rights actually are—have changed.

Commenting is less considered a reader right these days, and more and more a privilege. And it’s true that the worst kinds of commenters—trolls looking to incite arguments—are emboldened by anonymity. The open-Web alarmist Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget largely addresses the consequences of the current online structure. “There are recognizable stages in the degradation of anonymous, fragmentary communication,” he writes. “If no pack has emerged, then individuals start to fight. This is what happens all the time in online settings.”

Tom Ziller, who runs and moderates local Sacramento Kings blog Sactown Royalty—which sees upward of 1,000 comments a day during the NBA season—says that while you can’t get rid of anonymous users, the crowd can help with crowd control. “Everything is basically anonymous online, so without some form of moderation—whether top-down or by peer pressure from existing members—every online community will eventually tip into cesspool territory,” he explained.

Chances are very good that you are already familiar with this unfortunate aspect of Internet culture, the Lord of the Flies-ness of it, the maddening, sometimes frightening, and impossible-to-read nature of online comment and message boards.

Have you noticed, though, that news sites and blogs have started putting their feet down? The indie music site Pitchfork has never allowed comments, but remains a huge authority in music journalism. This goes against the common belief that comment frequency is a primary metric for gauging a site’s traffic (and legitimacy). The idea used to be that if you let commenters pipe up, more will come to do the same. There’s the feeling that a post is validated by accruing a gazillion comments. That mindset’s shifting, though.

The Sacramento Bee’s terms and conditions read similarly to the T&C of many more sites these days: They encourage a “free and open exchange of ideas in a climate of mutual respect,” and reserve the right to monitor and enforce terms of use, such as “abusive, vulgar, obscene, defamatory, libelous, hateful,” etc., content. The New York Times takes it a step or two further, holding off on the posting of comments at all until they’ve been approved by an administrator. “We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely,” reads their site. “We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments—either by the same reader or different readers.”

Blogs and online news sites and magazines are learning that they are allowed to be discerning in the comments section without being penalized or cast out. The New York Times also requests that comments “NOT SHOUT.” I mean, they’re even beginning to police comment capitalization. Isn’t that going to piss people off?

A-holes anonymous: Online commenting can lead to fighting and enemy unknown.

The Bee also discourages all-caps “shouting”—and most all-caps comments typically are flagged. This is also how administering of comments in general works on the Bee site: People post, users flag comments that they find either offensive or inappropriate, and then Bee online editors check flagged comments and either delete or reinstate them. The number of comments on Sacbee.com varies, from thousands every day, such as during Roberto Vellanoweth’s DUI vehicular-manslaughter trial in 2008, to a few hundred. And, oftentimes, offensive comments by so-called “trolls” remain unflagged. One source at the Bee calls their system “imperfect.”

Last summer, Gawker Media introduced a tiered system in its sites’ comments section, which requires commenters to “audition” before their comments are allowed to be shown.

Jezebel (part of the Gawker group) is a site that focuses on women’s issues and interests. Jezebel’s comments moderator, who writes under the pseudonym “Hortense,” wrote to me in an e-mail that this new system requires prospective commenters to post a comment or two “before a moderator or editor gives your account the OK.” Once you’re approved the first time, you become a “Tier 2” commenter, and your comments appear on the site in light gray and can only be read when the “show all discussions” option is chosen by a reader. “Tier 1” comments can be seen automatically in darker text, where everyone can read them (and Tier-1-level users get gold stars).

So, here’s the “fun game” element: Moderators and Tier-1 commenters can “promote” Tier-2 commenters to Tier 1 if the Tier 2 posters are bringing good game. “However!” Hortense writes, “We can also ‘unstar’ people, knocking them back down to Tier 2, which is typically a warning that the commenter has been breaking the rules and abusing their Tier 1 powers. … Unstarring is rare and causes more drama than it’s worth, so I try to avoid it if possible.”

The rules, clearly and elaborately outlined on Jezebel’s site (brother/sister sites Gawker, Gizmodo, Lifehack all have the same fundamental rules), basically remind readers that this is the site’s “party,” that they demand and expect respect and consideration, and that if you’re rude or offensive or, again, YELLING, you’re not going to be allowed to participate. You are expected to be smart, insightful and funny, even charming.

Experts say Jezebel’s two-tier method has had fantastic results. In April, Nieman Journalism Lab, a Harvard blog on online journalism, posted a graph that shows a pretty significant dip in Gawker comment traffic the month right after the company implemented the new system. Then, an unbelievable spike afterward, peaking at more than a million comments per site this past March, the final month graphed on the chart.

Over at Sactown Royalty, Ziller said that his site’s “distributed moderation,” or crowd control by community model, has been effective. “If someone manages to piss off a few dozen longtime commenters, it’s likely an indication that person is a huge jerk,” though he concedes that a problem with this is “altruistic longtime commenters.”

Ziller has seen his Sactown Royalty traffic trickle in over time, but growth has been faster lately, which he attributes to an established and adhered-to code of conduct. “Most people want to fit in—not necessarily to get a place in an echo chamber; we have a lot of disagreements in my community. But most people want to converse and not just shout to nobody. … They’ll try to follow expectations of civility. Those who don’t get banned.”

This lack of true community, Ziller said, has been Sacbee.com’s downfall. “That’s the problem with commenters at Sacbee.com. Nothing about that community is organic,” he said. “There was a huge online readership, and the paper opened the floodgates of anonymous commenting for all of them. There’s no internal regulation, so it’s basically a free-for-all struggle for legitimacy and notoriety among the commenters on most stories.”

“You have to watch out, because some of the flagging is people not liking what someone else says,” one source at the Bee explained. This can turn into a turf war—or more unidentified folk’s outrage—which may create more comments. But not better ones.