The Virginian Pilot’s verified commenting system.

Three months ago, the Virginian Pilot started an interesting experiment. In the face of the same crappy reader comments that virtually every media outlet gets on their site, they decided to do something different. They started requiring proof of identity in order to comment on the editorial section of the site—verified in the form of a $0 credit card charge—and displaying people’s full names and locations above each of their comments. This week, the 300th person signed up through this new system. Editorial page editor Don Luzzatto describes how successful it’s been:

We were likewise worried that we were overestimating the pernicious effect of anonymity. That requiring people to identify themselves wouldn’t have any effect on some of the nastier behavior.

That also proved to be wrong. Not just wrong, though. It proved to be wildly wrong.

Before the switch to verified commenting, we would regularly find it necessary to delete trollish or racist or otherwise inappropriate comments. Since the switch, we’ve had to do almost none of that. That’s all the more impressive because comments at the Opinion channel are posted automatically and are longer than on the rest of

The content of the comments on letters, editorials and columns has been so uniformly better, in fact, that we’ve been running them regularly in our letters column. That’s the highest praise I know.

Although some may well complain that significantly more than 300 people were participating before, I think that misses the point. In writing, it’s quality, not quantity that matters.

Anonymous commenting is sometimes a good and necessary thing—I think its availability is societally important, going back to the Federalist Papers. But publishers are under no obligation to serve as a venue for such commentary. I’m increasingly convinced that media outlets generally should make stronger attempts to improve the quality of the discourse on their sites. (If I can even use the word “discourse” to describe the shallow pseudonymous spats that are appended to so many articles.) I’m not aware of any publication taking the approach that the Virginian Pilot is—good for them for forging a new path.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

4 replies on “The Virginian Pilot’s verified commenting system.”

  1. Because of my job, I need anonymity, so I would probably not comment if you were using the V-P system. But I might be sacrificable, if it meant higher-quality comments overall.

  2. I don’t consider such an approach in any way necessary here. That’s because there’s a good alternative to this system—just managing online communities. When was the last time you saw an employee of a media outlet interacting with people within the comments? Their failure to do so allows terrible social norms to develop. Requiring the use of real identities is really a brute-force method of accomplishing the same thing that results from how I have long run all of my websites.

    (Also, it helps that all of my sites, these days, are geographically specific, which is to say that I know personally many of the people commenting. They might be anonymous to many other users, but they’re often not anonymous to me, and I’m confident that goes a long way in getting people to behave reasonably.)

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