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 PilotOnline.com.
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.