Warren says the anonymous commenter problem, which she says she thinks and talks about all the time, is enough to drive her “completely insane.”
“Commenting on new stories is a fantastic ability. I’ve worked in journalism for two decades,” she says. “And for most of that time, we’ve controlled the conversation … but I’m disappointed by people who use it to spread hate.”
Comments have gotten so predictably odious that Philly.com doesn’t even bother opening a comment gallery beneath some stories anymore. Warren says the good news is that anonymous commenters tend to be uniformly disgusting everywhere, not just in Philly.
“I’ve talked to Seattle, Washington, Miami and I don’t think we have it worse than anywhere else,” says Warren, who points out that in Miami, the hate speech tends to be anti-Latino, and in areas with Native Americans, it tends to be anti-Native American—indicating that comments might better reflect unequal Internet access and cultural norms of Internet use than the overall perspective of real-life residents.
“We are all struggling with how to involve the reader and also make it a positive experience,” says Warren.
That said, is it time to do away with anonymous online commenters? Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, a frequent object of online vitriol, says yes in language that wouldn’t have made it through the filth filter. Bykofsky calls them “fucking, no-good, motherless, shit-heel yellow curs.” And “gutless cocksuckers” who “shit on people.”
Since he’s a columnist, Bykofsky is frequently attacked personally. He’s a white guy, so he doesn’t get called an animal; attacks on him are mostly of the ageist variety, asking about his Metamucil intake and the like. “I have publicly complained that Philly.com allows these anonymous puke-eaters to defame the solid, hard, serious work done by our staff (not just me),” writes Bykofsky. “We would NEVER allow that in a letter to the editor.” Bykofsky adds that his beef is mostly with the anonymity.
Bykofsky’s not the only journalist on 400 N. Broad St. who feels this way.
“There is a vast difference between freedom of expression and the smearing of every vapid impulse all over the Internet,” wrote Inky columnist Karen Heller last year, “Though the latter activity appears to prevail.”
Allison Steele, an Inky crime writer on the police beat who writes stories that typically draw racist comments, admits she usually doesn’t bother to read them. She says that’s because basically, all the comments are the same.
But she believes anonymous comments should be allowed. “We get tips from anonymous sources all the time. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar, so you have the person who really does have something to add to the discussion [but] for whatever reason they don’t feel safe doing that unless they’re protected,” reasons Steele, adding that she does religiously read comments on weather stories and points out that Philly dot commenters can be straight-up hilarious when they’re not being downright disgusting.
Last summer, two articles in the American Journalism Review epitomized the pros and cons. First, editor and senior vice president Rem Rieder announced that the era of anonymous online commenters should be over. That piece garnered a thoughtful response from journalism professor Bill Reader, who reported that the right of Bykofsky’s “fucking no-good motherless shitheel yellow curs” to spew anonymously online is as American as it gets. “Anonymous speech is exactly what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind,” wrote Reader.
The Tea Party vibe in the argument notwithstanding, it makes sense. Should we all lose the right—maybe I should say privilege—to anonymously comment on newspaper sites because a small number of us are hateful awful people?
I don’t know. All I know is I can’t stop reading it.
In any case, the real debate isn’t philosophical—it’s practical. What paper has the resources to monitor an average of two comments per minute around the clock?
Certainly not Philly.com.
Soon, they won’t have to. Warren says anonymous playtime for Philly dot commenters is coming to an end. The site is already testing a new moderation system that would require commenters to sign in through Facebook accounts. There will be a tip line for genuine leads but other than that, no anonymity.
I have to admit part of me is disappointed, even though this is probably a great step for the 99 percent—the would-be commenters scared off by the elite 1 percent hogging up the bandwidth. And I’ll be happy to have all that time I spend with my eyes glazed over clicking through pages of comments back.
That means I can spend more time lurking over at PhiladelphiaSpeaks, which will surely experience a spike in membership when the new Philly.com system is introduced.
I’ll see you there.
Ever think to yourself: Hey, I wonder where I can have a threesome and then promptly forget about it? Well, one of our writers thinks he's found that place. Want Mexican food that doesn't burn on the way out? Of course you do. More of these questions and answers have found their way into this year's Better Than Best issue. And what's better than best, you ask? We have no idea. We just knew we couldn't use Best Of, because another publication in this town has it on lockdown. But that doesn't mean we didn't put an enormous amount of effort into bringing you the most random hidden gems Philly has to offer. Because we did. And we think we've got a pretty good list going on here.