Taking Online Discussions Back From the Bullies

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A somber mood engulfed friends and family of David B. Kellermann several weeks ago as they struggled to understand the death of Freddie Mac's acting chief financial officer. But a boisterous shouting match was taking place on The Post's Web site among those commenting on the story about his apparent suicide.

"Feeling sorry for THIS guy? Give me a break," wrote one, alluding to anger over immense losses at the housing finance giant. "Hopefully this is the first of many."

Another speculated that Kellermann "might have been getting ready to give up the names of prominent individuals and was perhaps 'taken out' by Cheney's death squad."

Others countered, pleading for respect.

"Most of you are truly sick and despicable," wrote one.

And there was this: "Can no one moderate some of these sick, twisted, comments?"

I believe that online, The Post should tolerate precisely the kind of moronic, anonymous, unsubstantiated and often venomous comments accompanying the Kellermann story. It's the essence of free speech.

A friend says that online commenting is a mixture of karaoke and road rage. He's right. Comments can be noxious, like the one from anonymous poster "krushX," who said my last column was "a groaning pile of decay." (I know where you live.)

But they also can be insightful and illuminating. And anonymity allows unfiltered candor that reflects what's on readers' minds.

The Post is correct to encourage anonymous commenting. It makes its Web site a vibrant town square. And it's a way of increasing site traffic, a key to The Post's survival as its audience shifts online.

But here's the challenge: shaping these growing online conversations in a way that encourages civility without restricting speech.

At washingtonpost.com, comments are automatically posted without prior review. Readers must first register and agree to guidelines precluding comments that are racist, sexist, obscene or libelous. It's a self-governing process in which the posters themselves may click on a "Report Abuse" button next to each comment. That alerts Web site editors who otherwise face the impossible task of monitoring as many as 10,000 comments each week. In a typical week, roughly 500 abusive comments are removed.

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