In yesterday’s Opinions section in the Washington Post I came across Doug Feaver’s article called “Listening to the Dot-Commenters” and felt compelled to write this missive concerning his incomplete analysis of anonymous commenters on the Washington Post website.
But the bigger problem with The Post’s comment policy, many in the newsroom have told me, is that the comments are anonymous. Anonymity is what gives cover to racists, sexists and others to say inappropriate things without having to say who they are.
He goes on to defend the commenters because they add dynamic content to an article, can be entertaining, act as a non-scientific survey on the topic de jour, and oftentimes show that the readers do not necessarily agree with the journalist who wrote the article. While these are all factual points, Feaver misses the larger issue. Comments are not completely anonymous.
Of the 330 comments that were generated by the article at the time of this posting, only one commenter addresses the larger point that I am attempting to make.
dlpetersdc wrote: Posts here are only anonymous to readers of these posts, not the WaPo’s staff. When you post, likely your IP address is recorded with the entry…[snip]… But anyone who thinks that you can remain anonymous on the Internet is fooling themselves.
Lets take this commenter’s summarized point one step further. Since all traffic on all websites leave a digital footprint that can be tracked back, in real time, to a unique IP address or Internet Service Provider, why does the Washington Post continue to shield it’s readers from one of the most important & least invasive aspects of this harvested data: the commenter’s geographic location??
Unlike the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or USA Today, as a newspaper of record that does not have nationwide circulation, the Washington Post’s existence and continued success is contingent upon a large local subscriber base and those living outside of the current distribution area reading articles on-line. Each month I pay to have the paper delivered to my house, but am essentially given no extra privileges when reading or commenting on an on-line article. Alternatively, each on-line article that non-subscribers read also helps the Washington Post’s bottom line through on-line advertising. Yet all commenters, paying subscribers and non-paying readers, are given the exact same treatment in the comments section of the Washington Post website. I feel this is unfair, unwise, and only perpetuates ignorant, racist, and bigoted remarks.
The incorporation of the geographic location of commenters might not seem significant, but the implications are quite important to the general discourse. When I read an article about the unconstitutional D.C. voting rights bill (aka the 1/3 Compromise), I sometimes like to see what comments are being left on-line or if someone expresses a legal opinion that I have not read yet. However after I have read what the different commenters have written, I am generally saddened that local opinions are sometimes lost in the clutter of non-local opinions. While the Washington Post knows the approximate location of each “anonymous” commenter, this information is not disclosed to other commenters, and it creates & perpetuates a vacuum of ignorance.
Moreover, sometimes the Washington Post will have a poll about an issue and many times I’ve found that the results are unbelievably skewed by those who do not live in the region. Why not add some basic geoscience to the poll by disclosing the difference between how readers from the Washington metropolitan region voted versus those who live in the rest of the world? This geographic data is already there waiting to be used, but sadly it is not.
But its not just an issue of liking or disliking comments; I can always choose not to read them. The root of the issue is that the Washington Post is perpetuating this type of ignorance by shielding their on-line readers from where a comment is originating. This data is collected the moment a user begins loading content from the website and it does not personally identify any readers. While an IP address can be spoofed, most people are not going to take the time to put forth the extra effort just so they can prevent their approximate location from being revealed.
Commenters can still be anonymous and have a geographic location attached to them. For example, my current IP address only shows that I am a Comcast subscriber based in Washington, DC. With thousands of other Comcast subscribers, I still retain a level of anonymity by creating an “anonymous” account using a different e-mail address and creating a screen name that only I know of.
Imagine for a moment that immediately after the commenters screen name there was the text “from [LOCATION]” or as it would read on the screen: ANONYMOUS COMMENTER from Memphis, Tennessee or Nik Schiller from Washington, DC. Who would you be more likely to read if the article was about something in Washington, DC? Or Memphis, Tennessee? Esssentially, what comments have more credibility? Those comments originating from the geographic location of the subject of the article? Or those that do not?
Well, of course, it depends on the context of their comments. If they were bashing the residents of Washington, DC and do not live here, I would most likely ignore them. But as it is now, even though the Washington Post knows where the commenter is from, all other commenters are denied this basic level of geographic understanding and it alienates readers who actually pay for the newspaper.
In conclusion, I believe a more civilized level of discourse can be established if the level of anonymity is slightly altered by providing the geographic location of all commenters. Its not so much about WHO the commenter is, but WHERE the commenter is from that is at the core my logic. Locals commenting about local affairs will be treated with more respect, while people who don’t pay for the paper, leave absurd, racist, or sexist comments, can & will be ignored more easily. As a paying subscriber, I feel it’s the least the Washington Post can do to encourage my on-line participation. The current model is a free for all that can be more civil, if, and only if, the Washington Post chooses to bring more sunshine to their paying & non-paying readers through the visible disclosure of the geographic information that each on-line reader already provides.