Comments: Quality, names more important than quantity

Brian Smith, Follow

Our opinion desk posted an editorial Monday encouraging community members to get involved in the discussions on the opinion pages. A few concerns about how comments are handled on have been posted in the comments thread on that editorial. I want to take a few moments to address those concerns and help explain the Iowa State Daily’s stance on commenting.

Last summer, we updated our content management system — the software system that powers our website. This update required us to wipe all of our existing comments and start over. We saw this as the perfect opportunity to make some key policy changes and start with a fresh slate.

First and foremost, the Daily doesn’t allow anonymous commenting. We require that you use your real name to post on our website. For hundreds of years publishers required names — and often cities — with any letter to the editor published in the paper. It’s taken many years, but this concept is catching up with online commenting.

The biggest reason we require names is to establish credibility. We ask that if you have a statement, opinion or question that you put your name behind it.

We also require names to help keep the trolls at bay. Under our previous system threads would start with a few meaningful comments and quickly degrade to two or three people throwing insults at each other. Sure, there are still some people comfortable throwing insults with a name attached, but many aren’t.

Our motivation was not to stifle any type of opinion or political expression. It was to improve the quality of the conversations happening on our website.

Yes, the number of comments have decreased, but the quality has increased. In our eyes, quality conversations are more important.

We are not alone in removing anonymous comments. This summer The Des Moines Register, along with another paper owned by Gannett, are testing Facebook’s commenting system. The Los Angeles Times also uses the Facebook commenting system on its blogs. Countless other news organizations are experimenting with other methods of removing anonymity.

We thought it was important to offer options to our community members. That is why we opted against Facebook’s commenting system, but instead use Facebook as one of the ways that you can create an account.

A recent article published by the Poynter Institute, a journalism research and training center, indicates that most news organizations that try Facebook commenting declare it a success. Publishers have reported improved conversations and more traffic generated by comments.

We recognize — as Mandy Jenkins, a social media editor at the Huffington Post points out — that no system is perfect. We know some people will find a way around it and still use a fake name. All we can say to that is, doing so violates Facebook’s terms of service and we will shut the account down as soon as we find out about it.

We also know that requiring names is only one part of the solution. As Jenkins writes in another post, staff involvement on the comment threads can go a long way. We encourage our reporters and columnists to respond to questions asked on their stories. We want them to be a part of a lively discussion.

Part of our job is to educate our community and spark discussion. We want to host that conversation in a productive manner that raises important questions and seeks answers, not one that resorts to name calling and insults for entertainment.

If you have further questions or concerns about how the Daily handles comments please let me know. Comments can be left on this post, you can email me at [email protected] or you can call my office at 515-294-4149.