We're trying another approach to engage our anonymous commenters

Our policy on WellCommons requires people who post content or who leave a comment on a post to use their real name. That's what our advisory group wanted. And it was part of our promise to create a safe place and a trusted source for health news and information.

That worked well, until we began feeding WellCommons content into the news stream on LJWorld's home page. More people came to WellCommons from LJWorld, which was great, and more anonymous comments began appearing.

We didn't want to discourage people from commenting, but we wanted to adhere to the promise we made to our community. So, we decided to allow people to leave up to three anonymous comments before requiring a real name. Health reporter Karrey Britt and I sent messages to the anonymous commenters to let them know about the policy and to ask that they use their real name. We began removing their comments after they'd posted three.

Well, two things happened. One, there are so many anonymous comments that it's taking too much time to manage them. And, two, some people leave such good comments, even though they're anonymous, that we hate taking them down.

For example, kansasplains1 left this comment on a great post by Rebecca Lo about the new Maine Street sidewalk.

A great comment, right? It adds value to Rebecca's post. We're glad to see it. But it's kansasplains1's 10th comment. This commenter -- and others -- have not responded to our private or public entreaties to add their real name to their profile.

Obviously, our approach isn't working. Because we want to keep our promise to make WellCommons a safe place and a trusted source, this is what we'll try now:

  • We will allow anonymous comments, but we will moderate them. That means we'll take them down if they're abusive, overly snarky, or are off-topic, i.e., having nothing to do with the content of the post.
  • When we take down a comment, we will send a message to the commenter explaining why we took the comment down.
  • We encourage you to flag a comment for removal. At the bottom of each comment are two words: "permalink", which is the url just for the comment, and "suggest removal". When you click on "suggest removal", an email will be sent to Jonathan Kealing or Karrey Britt; and they will review it.

  • We will continue to send a note to every anonymous commenter asking her/him to provide a real name, but we will give up on the three-strikes-you're-out rule. Here's what the note says:

Thanks for posting a comment on WellCommons. We welcome participation and discussion, and we encourage people to use their real names.

We realize not all users are comfortable posting on the Internet using their real name, but we think that WellCommons will be a safer, more productive place if we all know each other. We're building a positive, solutions-oriented online community. We need your help to make this as interesting, helpful and thoughtful a community as possible.

If you've posted anonymous comments in LJWorld and want to keep them that way, create a new sign-in on WellCommons. You'll need to use a different email address than the one you're using for LJWorld. But that's easy to obtain through Gmail or Yahoo, for example.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

We'd like to get your feedback on this. Feel free to leave a reply here, or contact Karrey Britt (kbritt@ljworld.com), Jonathan Kealing(jkealing@ljworld.com) or me.

We're also meeting with our advisory group later this month, and will bring this up. If you'd like to attend, please let one of us know.

If this doesn't work, we'll try something else. We're constantly evaluating our sites and how to make them better. With your help, they will be.

Here's some information from StreetFight.com and the Electronic Frontier Foundation about what other sites are doing.

Tagged: anonymous comments

Comments

Charlie Bryan 5 years, 7 months ago

I appreciate your commitment to keeping your promise to make WellCommons a safe place and a trusted source.

This new approach sounds promising. I especially like the option to suggest removal. However, a rating system might be less difficult to manage since such a system wouldn't require an email to be sent to Karrey and Jonathan when the "suggest removal" link is clicked. A rating system that allowed users to rate comments would be even more useful if the rating system could also allow users to rate posts.

Just some food for thought. I look forward to the advisory group meeting later this month to hear what others think about this new approach.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

Thanks for the suggestion, Charlie. It's a good one. There are several good ratings systems out there. We can talk about it more at the advisory group meeting.

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 7 months ago

I need help understanding the good reasons why so many people want to remain anonymous.

Could we have an online discussion about this? I'm guessing that anonymous commenters won't show up at an advisory group meeting.

DaniB 5 years, 7 months ago

For me personally, I would prefer not to post my real name on controversial topics. There are too many crazy people in the world. I don't want to get stalked for my view on healthcare, for example. I also would prefer that my employer not know my views on any topic that could be considered even a little controversial. That's my I prefer to post anonymously, at least part of the time.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

I think people should have the option, for the reasons you gave, Danielle.

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 7 months ago

Danielle:

Would you refrain from going to any kind of town hall meeting or political event for the same reasons?

DaniB 5 years, 7 months ago

Actually yes, unless I could maintain relative anonymity. For example, I would've avoided the town hall meetings on healthcare for the same reason. The discussions were way too heated and bordered on hysteria. I would be too worried that someone would retaliate against my family.

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 7 months ago

That's really sad, because you seem to be a smart, thoughtful person.

We are worse off as a community for not having level heads like yours present in real world discussions.

blturner 5 years, 7 months ago

The article from the EFF, "A Case for Pseudonyms," (linked in the post above) does a good job outlining the pros and cons of allowing the use of pseudonyms on the internet.

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/07/case-pseudonyms

I would also recommend reading Danah Boyd's article, "'Real Names' Policies Are an Abuse of Power." In addition to the pseudonym discussion, she addresses the myths surrounding the "real name" culture Facebook supposedly encourages.

http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2011/08/04/real-names.html

dcap 5 years, 7 months ago

This is a fine idea, but I have one problem with it. I tried everyday for 2 months to make an account on Wellcommons. My daily ritual was to go to the Wellcommons login page and try to make a new account. I would fill out my name, email, and password then submit. Every day it said the page was not available. I finally found that we had an old LJW account and I used that to get in. I just checked and now of course the create account is working. Anyways I think the real name is good policy.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

Chad -- I'm so sorry that you had trouble making an account on WellCommons. If you ever have any issue with accessing any of our sites, please contact us.

At the bottom of all our sites's pages there's a box that says "Help us make your site better." Just type into the box, hit return, and it will be sent to four people on our staff. One of us will reply to you.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 7 months ago

I am not a professional journalist, so there is nothing to be gained from splashing my name all over the internet. And there is a considerable downside to doing so from a security standpoint. Internet forums breed controversy, and one never knows just how stable the other participants are.

There is a lot of information about an individual that can be mined from about 15 minutes of internet digging -- address, home value, phone numbers, etc .And with a little more effort, a lot of times one can even find kids' names and the schools they attend.

And that is just the free stuff.

ebyrdstarr 5 years, 7 months ago

I have numerous reasons for wanting to remain anonymous. The biggest reason is that I want to control who I interact with on the internet with my real identity and on a public message board, I can't do that. There is nothing that would stop anyone from using a fake name, so it isn't like I can be entirely sure posters are who they say they are. Even if everyone really does use their real name, I have no way of assuring myself that there aren't any potential stalkers reading here.

I have always believed that the credibility of an online comment rises and falls on the substance of the comment. It really means nothing to me to have a name attached to a comment because I still don't know the person behind the name, just as you don't know me. So how does it matter whether you know me online as "ebyrdstarr" or "Jane Doe"? Either way, you will come to decide whether you value my comments by reading them, not by knowing what name I claim on the internet.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

You're absolutely right, for most sites. With WellCommons, though, it's a niche site that supports a community that is solution-oriented.

We hope that people who discuss issues virtually will meet face-to-face in community groups to work on solving some of our health issues, or just do things together, such as the Community Bike Ride or other events.

We don't have all the tools to facilitate that yet -- such as a goals application, or a meet-up app. But when those are added, I think it will make WellCommons different enough from traditional sites that people in its community are regarded as participants, not just commenters.

tvc 5 years, 7 months ago

WellCommons has several articles that I would consider sensitive in nature like the polls about sexual assault and domestic violence. Maybe a person has an experience they would like to share, but would not like anyone that searches their name to know. I would not want a future employer to know that I was raped, had cancer, or my political opinions. While I think sharing personal experiences can help others going through similar situations, I think it is foolish to share it under your real name.

I am glad WellCommons is taking this step. I think it is great you are allowing people that are cautious about using their real name to participate in the discussion.

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 7 months ago

Jane:

When a person votes in an online poll, is that vote in any way attached to their profile? Could some smart person on your staff figure out how I have voted?

tvc 5 years, 7 months ago

I think you are missing the point. It isn’t about voting in the poll but about adding to the discussion after the poll. There are people that do not want to share their experiences if they have to use their real name. However, just because they don’t want to share their name, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to share their experience or that they are not adding something of value to the discussion.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm pretty sure that we can't, but I'll check and have someone who knows more about this than I do respond.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

From Ben Spaulding, one of our digital developers, the answer:

The short answers are No and No.

Polls can require registration to vote, or not. Below is how they work and how often we use each.

Situation 1: A poll that does not require registration to vote. (This applies to 99.7646% of our 2,549 polls to date. In other words, we hardly ever have polls where anyone is required to register just to vote in that poll.) Note: The polls that were part of the recent series asking questions about childhood trauma from the ACE Study did not require registration to vote.

Info gathered: IP Address of the person voting.

Why info is gathered: To throttle voting, such that votes from a given IP address are only counted once a hour. (This is done to discourage repeated voted that would skew results.)

Is the info personally identifying?: Not realistically speaking. There are usually multiple people behind a public IP address. Further, many public IP addresses are not static; the address for a location can and does change.

Situation 2: Poll which does require registration (To date, only 6 of our 2,549 polls have required registrion.)

Info gathered: IP Address of person voting. ID number of user account.

Why info is gathered: The IP address is to throttle voting, such that votes from a given IP address are only counted once a hour. (To discourage repeated voted that would skew results.)

I am actually not sure why we store the User ID number. It does make it so different people behind a single IP could each vote without being throttled by the actions of other voters, but that is really a non-problem.

Is the info personally identifying?: Yes. Ish. We do store the user ID, after all. A very technical employee on our staff (more technical than me) could connect to the database and write a complex set of functions to extract the user ID and poll ID, and look up who voted on what polls, and even know when they did it. However, there is currently no possible way to know what choice (yes, no, etc.) a person voted for. We only can identify that the person voted and when (and, again, this applies only to the few polls in which we've required registration specifically to vote in that poll).

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm curious what the 6 polls were and why they required registration.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

Heh. Turns out someone checked the wrong box when creating them. They didn't need to require registration.

Hazel Ripstra 5 years, 7 months ago

Even though I use my real name, I understand and support the reasons why one would choose to be anonymous. I run some discussion forums, so I am familiar with these problems: I think you have to assess the content itself, and moderate accordingly, irrespective of whether someone has a real name or not.

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 7 months ago

Jane:

Will the World Company also change its policy of requiring (and verifying by phone) real names for letters to the editor that appear in the print version of the paper? This feels like a double standard.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

Do you mean change the policy to one of allowing anonymous letters to the editor?

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

I believe there are some legal issues that are different with print than they are for online. I will have someone who knows more than I do about it to respond.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 7 months ago

If one wants to editorialize, the the price of admission is one's anonymity. In return, the writer get a byline and a bully pulpit.

But I think what WellCommons wants is community discussion, not a series of editorials from their like-minded members. So, if they want to be more inclusive, then the price for WellCommons is to accept anonymous contributions.

Frankly, I pretty much quit reading WellCommons articles simply because of their 'members-only' policy and their heavy-handed use of the delete button. (I have also never received a message from them when a post was deleted.)

I think that starting to allow anonymous posts is a step in the right direction, but what I expect is to see the posts of anyone who does not share the philosophy of the advisory board summarily dismissed as 'inappropriate content' and deleted. That, of course, is WellCommon's prerogative, but if they want to embrace a wider audience, they need to foster discussion, even if it is dissenting discussion.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

Good points and a great discussion. If the LJW makes people put their names on a LTE, they should, in my opinion, do the same for all commenters in all circumstances. I understand why some are fearful of attaching their name to a statement, but basic due process and fairness suggests to me that 'anonymous' posters don't think as much about what they say as those who own up to who they are. Yes, as one poster above noted, there are crazy people in the world. If they come to your door, that's what guns and dogs and the cops are for. Just my take on it, Paul

DaniB 5 years, 7 months ago

You also make a good point Paul, but if possible, I would like to avoid having to bring out the guns, dogs, and police, especially over something as relatively trivial as an online comment. :)

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

Danielle: I agree, and was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. On the other hand, we cannot live in fear even if this 'new internet' culture encourages irresponsible comments made by people who hide behind their various masks. Some comments are trivial; others are not. I suppose it depends on one's definition. People under 30 or so consider the digital world 'real' and everything else just extra and something to navigate only from one computer-type device to another. Clearly we are heading towards a world where many people want to be 'anonymous' and unaccountable for their actions or words. In any event, we have always had to protect ourselves, in our homes and in this strange new digital world. Good luck and keep up the good work. PRG

notorious_agenda 5 years, 7 months ago

There are many other places to go.
They have been around longer, and nobody is condescending to you using your real name, or sending you insulting emails about being anonymous.

socialintelligencecounts 5 years, 7 months ago

Kansas is statistically one of the most unhealthy states in the union. Part of this begins with viral ignorance and uneducated, unaware attitudes. There's no way anyone who has grown up in civilized parts of the country only to brutally abused by the unconscious snarkiness and dishonesty that forms the very hate-filled personality of Lawrence is going to be able or willing to lead the psychically blind. It's likely only the blind leading the blind as far as community participation in Lawrence goes.

parrothead8 5 years, 7 months ago

Although I respect your policy, it seems hypocritical to link your stories through a site that allows anonymous commenters if you don't want them yourself. Also, I suspect this new policy will dramatically increase the workload of your comment moderators...which is fine, I suppose. Everyone appreciates job security.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 7 months ago

We shall soon see if WellCommons editorial staff is serious about this.

I just posted a critical but nonetheless respectful response to a blog about lap-flying a toddler.

Let's see how long it stays.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

Criticism is just fine. We welcome it, because it sparks thoughtful discussion, which we want to remain civil. Being snarky and mean isn't. So, since you're curious.....that first post is fine -- you made some some interesting points. The second one....borderline. Me, I don't know that I'd call anyone's kid, especially one as cute as Johnny, "spawn".

But Megan addressed the factual issues you raised, as did another commenter, who provided some useful data. And she also pointed out that, as with the bulk of her posts, she's writing tongue-in-cheek.

Tracy Record, editor of WestSeattleBlog.com, and one of my heroes, has a similar comments policy. Here's a piece of it:

"Comments that serve no purpose other than to call someone else a name or otherwise insult them are subject to deletion; criticize ideas if you must, but not the people who offer them. Comments wishing someone death or injury also are subject to deletion."

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 7 months ago

Thanks.

And as for little J. being "spawn," they are all spawn, including my own -- Spawn 1 and Spawn 2.

meggers 5 years, 7 months ago

I understand your point about wanting the information on Well Commons to be accurate for your readers, however I don't see how using one's real name makes the information they post any more credible than information that is posted anonymously. Plus, given that this is still part of the Journal World, I think the expectation is that the information contained in the article is accurate, but the accuracy of any comments posted by non-journalist citizen should not be taken as fact. I think that's pretty common knowledge on any news site.

If the concern is that conversations will digress into petty bickering that you do not wish to have occur in this forum, I can better understand your position. I think we can all agree that anonymous posters often say things that they would not say if others knew their identity. Even so, banning anonymous posters altogether won't completely solve that problem. I've seen several posters make inappropriate and offensive comments while using their real name.

Because you will need to moderate the comments anyway, it makes more sense to me to just remove inappropriate posts, regardless of whether or not the poster was anonymous. Your readers will likely share much more information about their own personal experiences if they have the option of doing so anonymously.

I don't choose to use my real name for reasons some other posters have mentioned. In my profession, I deal with many members of the community and I know for a fact that some of the people I have good working relationships with do not share my political views. I also don't feel comfortable sharing personal information via the internet.

Finally, it is impossible to avoid political disagreement when many of the articles posted in this section are political in nature. Some of them are only available here and not on the main JW site. Denying access to mental health services for children, for example. With issues like that, it is often impossible to avoid controversial opinions about some topics. And while I don't work for SRS or the state, those who do probably would not be well served to use their actual name in voicing opposition to some of the decisions being made by the current administration.

Don't get me wrong. I think this is an excellent site that is packed with a lot of helpful and interesting information. I would like to see some of the information carried over to the news section, because it impacts the community at large, but overall you do an excellent job of covering a wide range of topics.

If posting anonymously is no longer allowed, I simply won't post here. I suspect quite a few others feel the same way. By the way, I haven't received any messages requesting that I "out" my identity in order to post here. It might be because I have a different email address than the one I registered with years ago. I tried to go in and change it at one time, but I couldn't figure out how without registering for a new account.

rangerjoe 5 years, 3 months ago

I agree. As a state employee, I voluntarily took a job for the government, and the United States Supreme Court interprets that to mean I don't have as many First Amendment rights as a citizen who works for a private employer. If I want to try to bulwark my freedom of speech with an anonymous handle, that should be my business; it doesn't mean I have nothing to contribute to the conversation.

jestevens 5 years, 7 months ago

Here's another interesting take on the issue of using real names or not, from Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic.

Why Facebook and Google's Concept of 'Real Names' Is Revolutionary

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/why-facebook-and-googles-concept-of-real-names-is-revolutionary/243171/

Charlie Bryan 5 years, 7 months ago

The mass moderation system used by Slashdot might be worth studying. It relies on the wisdom of crowds without creating a censoring mob. Slashdot has been at this for a while, and they go so far as to allow users to rate the ratings given to comments by other users. You can read more about their moderation system at http://slashdot.org/faq.

true_patriot 5 years, 7 months ago

I've never seen a message about this issue, just randomly happened to see this article. Perhaps it's lost in the slew of junk email sent to my account.

I disagree with employing any bias against anonymous posting. In today's world the ability to data-mine and form profiles of people based on the use of what they say online using their real names is being exploited and abused in many ways and on many levels. While some use anonymity to troll and flame, many do it because unreasonable and disproportionate harm can come to them by voicing opinions using their real names.

If someone trolls and flames using their real name and there is an approach at a given site of moderating such posts, it should apply equally to both real names and anonymous - either the content is being censored or it's not.

williampic 5 years, 4 months ago

This is an informative discussion which has helped me form my own opinion on anonymous postings: 1) I think there is a place for anonymous postings. They allow words to be said pubiically that bring important issues up for review that for whatever reason are suppressed or forbidden by "the powers that be." It is healthy for community problem solvers to be in touch with those who dissent. Anonymous postings are only one barometer of community opinion. 2) I fully support deletion of postings which threaten the safety of others, are pornographic, are unrelated to the topic at hand, or which would be prohibited in any public place.
3) I also think that people should be encouraged to use their names and contact information when they feel safe doing so.
4) I like the idea of encouraging all posters to make a personal contact to expand on their concerns or recommendations in face to face contacts which offer more anonymity and safety.

William Pickering 785-841-7072 williampic@yahopo.com

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