The case for real identities on newspaper.com sites

On the ONA list, a discussion has sprung about about ethics and user participation. I made a brief comment about the ethics around real identity, which prompted my friend and mentor Steve Yelvington to post a link to an article he wrote last year on the topic.

In response, I wrote this lengthy post — so long, that I think I should get the benefit of all that work by dual posting it here:

Great article Steve … It conjures up lots of thoughts.

At GateHouse Media, I think we’re going to “require” real identities. We’re still building our system to “enforceâ€? this, and are months away yet, so I suppose this policy is subject to change, but I’m pretty set on it.

Some background that figures into my thinking:

Members of this list who have been part of the newspaper-online community for a number of years, such as Steve, will recall that I was out of newspapers for a few years and ran a site called RVClub.com (still around, but floundering). I learned a lot about “virtual communities”? (we now call them social networks) running that business.

One important lesson: Moderation works. A strong moderator who sets the tone and lays down the ground rules makes for better participation. The fact that our e-mail discussion list, RV-Talk, is still going strong, is strong evidence of this, I think. These days, it requires almost no moderator intervention because the culture is so well established.

But the other lesson I’ve only recently come to realize is that: Real identity is important. Because RV-Talk started at a time when most people had only one e-mail account, and that account almost invariably was tied to real identity, our members didn’t think twice about revealing real identity. In fact, after a year or so, when I rebuilt the site and tired to introduce AOL-like handles, the core membership rejected it and complained about it. They wanted to know who they were dealing with.

At the Ventura County Star, we instituted comments on stories in early 2004 when almost no newspapers were doing it (I think some had done it before, but as far as I know, all had stopped before we started doing it again). Because I was eager to get started and didn’t want to wait on Scirpps to provide proper commenting software, I just went to Haloscan, grabbed some JavaScript and dropped it into our story templates. And suddenly, we had very blog-like comments on stories (and trackbacks).

But we also had no verification of identity, no way to ban users — it was a completely open system. And it wasn’t long before the racist came out.

That got quite a bit of negative coverage in the trade press. People like Vin Crosbie, whom I respect as much as Steve, were critical of our decision to allow unmoderated, unfiltered, anonymous comments. A college professor, whom I forget who it was, likened our comments to allowing bathroom graffiti on our journalistically-pristine stories.

We removed comments, but with the intention of bring them back within days (this was widely misreported as “VCS.com decides not to allow comments ever again.”

Nathan Ashby Kuhlman, now with the New York Times, but then with one of our sister publications, figured out how to hack together Haloscan, JavaScript and Cold Fusion to tie comments into our registration system. Because people had registered, generally, with their real names, we started publishing real names with comments. We also had greater power to moderate, ban and cajole good behavior.

The tone of discourse immediately improved.

We still had people using false identity, but most people just stuck with their real names.

And it was easier to ban the false identity (registered users had to hassle with creating new e-mail accounts once banned, and some people were nearly indefatigable in this regard, but we also discovered a very simple trick that should not work, but did: once a person was banned, when they came back, we set a “banned”? cookie — easy to defeat, but as far as I know, nobody ever did — it was too drop dead stupid, I think, for people to even suspect that’s what we were doing .. Or the bad actor types are too stupid to figure it out).

But that was a clue that real identity was a gateway to better behavior. We still had problems, but it helped.

So my goal became then: We need social networking. We need the ability to tie identity to profiles, to history, to a sense of belonging to the site. That’s a big part of what motivated me (unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) to move to Bakersfield, where they had Bakotopia already built and I realized that here was an engine to tie to participation on a mainstream newspaper site. This really excited me and I’m proud of what Bakersfield.com has in place today.

We decided there, however, to believe that “persona” was acceptable, so long as behind the scenes, we stored real identity in our database.

And I stuck for a long time to the idea that it was journalistically responsible enough to be able to identify people behind the scenes, even if publicly they had handles.

(I should interject: One thing I learned about registration systems both in Ventura and Bakersfield is that most people are honest and they give you real identity. People who don’t like registration systems never believe me, but I know with 100 percent certainty that it’s true. I’ve done the checks and tests and know that contrary to myth, most local users give real information when registering on a local news site, and by most, I mean 94 to 98 percent).

Now we come to Facebook: When I joined Facebook, a light went on. I remembered the lessons for RVClub.com and realized that if you build the right environment, real identity is not a problem. I decided right then and there that for GateHouse, we should require real identity. It is so important to responsible behavior. It is so important to journalistic integrity, and as much as, like Steve, I want to build web sites that are more web like and less newspaper like, I still believe that journalistically we have some responsibilities to truth and honesty and transparency and to the communities we serve, and we should require no less of the people we invite to participate in our news web sites than we require of ourselves in this regard.

In Steve’s article, he presents some pretty compelling evidence about how computer-network culture changed from real identity to hidden identity, but to me that’s just a case for why newspaper sites can and should evole toward requiring real identity. We should believe and communicate to our users that it is important, and why. Sure, we’ll lose some participation, but I think we can gain so much more in trust with the communities we serve that the sacrifice is worth it.

The one pro-anonymous participation argument that I haven’t satisfactorily overcome yet is the idea that some news tipsters will shy away from participation if people, particularly bosses, are able to identify who they are. The only thing I can say is that A) I think we gain more than we lose; B) there’s other avenues for whistling blowing than just our forums and blogs and comments. That doesn’t feel like the most satisfactory answer to me, but it’s an answer. I still think we gain more than we lose.

So that’s what we plan on instituting on GateHouse web sites (when we have all the programming complete to make it work), unless Steve or somebody else can make such a compelling case that I should change my mind.

8 thoughts on “The case for real identities on newspaper.com sites

  1. We turned on comments on most stories 7 or 8 weeks ago with a lowest-common-denominator js solution our developer brewed up in a day or two.

    As I spend more time moderating and worrying about what to moderate, yeah, I definitely want to use real names.

    I’ve talked a *lot* about the need for a Digg/Slashdot type of commenting system where the readers can rate comments and set thresholds for what level of comments they’ll bother looking at. Below your threshold? Comments collapse. Click to expand.

    The Arizona Daily Star (a Lee paper with a JOA with a Gannett paper) comes close, using first name + last initial, although it looks like they’re now displaying a handle in addition to that. Not sure why.

    Anyway, the latest low-rent idea I have is to require real names and e-mail confirmation, but add a link on the comment form to “Send us an anonymous tip.”

    Maybe that will at least put a whistle-blowing button in front of a reader who wants it, without allowing the sort of anonymous drivel that flows in on a regular basis.

  2. We’re talking about collapsing and rating solutions, too.

    Also user points to help users and us identify high, meaning usually good community member, participants.

    I used to be a member of WholeNote.com (still am, but don’t participate) and I think a point-based system has worked very well there.

    I like your whistle-blowing button … it could even look like a whistle!

  3. […] The case for real identities on newspaper.com sites – howardowens.com “At GateHouse Media, I think we’re going to “require” real identities. We’re still building our system to “enforce” this, and are months away yet, so I suppose this policy is subject to change, but I’m pretty set on it.” (tags: internet socialmedia newspapersites community comments moderation identity) […]

  4. Real people. Real posts. Real civic conversation. Thanks for the sane approach. I was told not so long ago when I protested the “all idiots aboard” approach to stop being a “nattering school marm.” Well, this is one school marm who understands that her audience(s) expect credibility, civic and civil conversation regardless of whether it’s in print, online or in holograms. And, on that issue of whistle blowers? Not to worry. They’ll still call, send an e-mail or snail mail.

  5. Hi Howard–very compelling argument for linking names with posts. Yet I’d hesitate a bit on this, esp. knowing how many papers like to cut corners in the moderating department. I think, too, that anonymity is important to protect folks from retaliation by employers (something that often gets neglected till someone gets fired.) And I definitley don’t buy the supposition that forcing people to reveal their names helps conversation–rather, it can limit conversation to only those who might be the “popular” or “in” crowd, with the potential to create cliques and echo chambers. Think of it this way: if you’re having a conversation in a bar, or in a bowling alley, or any other big room full of people, do we always know everyone’s names? And do you always insist that everyone give his/her name. Registration that allows for pseudonyms (rather than insisting on screen names–another bugaboo) is a much better solution. We should be able to participate in public conversation without fearing retaliation.

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