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Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse
For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.
While some readers complain they've had it with unruly online conversation, thousands have joined it. In a typical month, more than 320,000 comments are made in response to Post stories, columns and blogs. That's almost a third more than a year ago, said Hal Straus, who oversees commenting for the Web site. The growth is critical to The Post's financial survival in the inevitable shift from print to online. The goal is to dramatically build online audience, and robust commenting is key to increasing visitors to the Web site and keeping them there as long as possible.
When they register to submit comments, readers must agree not to post "inappropriate" remarks, including those that are hateful or racist, or those that advocate violence. The Post's Web site relies heavily on self-policing, where readers hit a "Report Abuse" button to flag potential violators. About 300 comments are deleted each day. But others slip through because The Post's staff of only a few monitors can't possibly scrutinize everything. So how to deal with bullies who break the rules?
The solution is in moderating -- not limiting -- comments. In a few months, The Post will implement a system that should help. It's still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different "tiers" based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered "trusted commenters." Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.
When visitors click to read story comments, only those from the "trusted" group will appear. If they want to see inflammatory or off-topic comments from "trolls," they'll need to click to access a different "tier."
I like the approach because it doesn't limit speech. Anonymous loudmouths can still shout. But "trusted commenters" will be easier to hear.
Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.