Those Who Cannot Remember The Online Past Are Condemned To Repeat It

Using the Online News Association’s discussion list, Jon Garfunkel of noted how the Ventura County Star has temporarily had to shutdown its online forums because (The Los Angeles Times reported[note: registration site]) of uncivil postings. Garfunkel asked:

    “Wouldn’t it be handy if there were resources available to summarize best practices with news-site commenting techniques?”

Every three of four years the topic of cacophony in unmoderated, anonymous discussion forums run by news organization arises. It was much discussed and analyzed in the pre-Web days when those forums operated under the umbrellas of CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, and other (no pun intended) proprietary online services. It was likewised much discussed when the topic reappeared again and again throughout the 1990s, from Web-based discussion forums.

Now, it pops up again, as if it was something new. Time to whack this weasal once more!

A century ago, George Santayana stated that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” My guess is that his tone became increasingly strident every time he stated that. Likewise, so have my own postings whenever the topic of unmoderated, anonymous online discussion forums run by news organizations.

Here’s my latest:

With all due respect to my friend Howard Owens at the VCS and other news site executives who are (or have been) running unmoderated forums on which people can anonymously post comments: Would the editors of your newspapers’ Op-Ed page or Letters-to-the-Editors column allow anyone whose identity they didn’t know to include unmoderated comments in the print edition?

As I understand the situation, these websites are operating anonymous, unmoderated postings simply because:

(a) These sites don’t have staff to moderate those forums.
(b) Most of these sites haven’t setup any prior mechanism to verify posters’ actual identities.
(c) Other websites (those not owned by newspapers, broadcasters, and news magazines) operate anonymous, unmoderated discussion forums.

None of those are legitimate reasons to publish unmoderated forums with anonymous postings. What those news sites are doing makes publishers and libel defense lawyers blanch. It’s verboten in print editions, and the libel laws are the same for online.

Moreover, it’s dumb in new-media. Godwin’s Law was already well-established a decade ago: unmoderated online discussions naturally degrade into cacophony. Likewise, decades of research about behaviors in online forums (notably by MIT Sociologist Sherry Turkle) made clear that the quality of online forums is inversely proportional to the anonymity of its participants. For these reasons, successful online discussion communities, such as the WELL, decades ago banned anonymous postings (see what its motto You Own Your Own Words means).

Any news organization website that publishes anonymous, unmoderated discussion forums will get the risks and results doing so deserves. The organization might not have staff to moderate forums; but, sorry, there is no free lunch. There are very good reasons why the editors of a letter-to-the-editor and Op-Ed pages verify the identities of contributors (even those who want the newspaper to give them anonymity) before printing their letters or comments. And just because sites that aren’t owned by news organizations publish anonymous, unmoderated forums doesn’t mean news sites should, too. Newspapers, broadcasters, and news magazines have special responsibilities to their readers or users, responsibilities those other sites don’t have. Those responsibilities are not just to prevent libel, but to foster high quality discussions.

The topic of ‘Gee, our unmoderated, anonymous forums have degraded into insults and we had to take them offline’ is an old, stale subject that should have been settled long ago.