Tuesday, June 4, 2013

We are changing how readers comment on our site

You wouldn't go to a public forum wearing a mask and expect to be invited to speak.

And yet websites commonly allow users to speak their minds anonymously in virtual forums, as if that should be the new standard for the Internet.

No doubt it will continue to be the standard for many sites. But our own experience tells us that anonymity rarely produces the kind of dialogue our users want.

In fact, the mud-wrestling that often unfolds in anonymous comments that follow our stories on CharlotteObserver.com is a big turn-off for many people. And despite our best efforts to maintain a civil atmosphere, a small but determined number of users continue to post comments laced with hate, vicious attacks and vulgarities. We delete as many as 300 comments a day that violate our guidelines.

So we are recalling the masks. Beginning at noon Wednesday, our stories will only feature the comments of people who are willing to be recognized.

Specifically, commenters will log in using a Facebook account. Most people on Facebook use their real names. Even those who don’t are generally recognizable to their Facebook “friends” and, therefore, more accountable for what they say.

You won’t need a Facebook account to read the comments, only to post one. Many readers already have an account. For those who don’t, we’ll show you how to get one.

We’ve prepared a Q&A for that and other questions that we anticipate you will have with this change. You can also message me with questions on Facebook, in email, on Twitter or by phone (details below).

We know that a few users will yet find a way to post anonymously through Facebook. We will continue to monitor comments for violators of our guidelines, explained at the beginning of each comment section, and ban them from our site.

We also have an option for anonymous users who often assist us through the comments with news tips or additional context about a story. Look for a link at the top of each comment section that allows a user to send the newsroom a message that will remain out of public view.

With these changes, we expect fewer comments on our stories. This has been the experience of other newspaper websites that already switched to Facebook registration, including The Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and USAToday.

But their experience also suggests this will result in more relevant and substantial comments. We hope it will also encourage the return of many reasonable commenters who previously left, rather than be bullied or intimidated. We want to provide our users a safe place for community conversations and respectful debate.

We also still welcome the tasteful comedians out there. Just remember that if the joke falls flat, someone will know where to aim the tomatoes.

Reach Rick Thames at rthames@charlotteobserver.com, twitter.com/rthames and www.facebook.com/rthames.obs. Phone: 704-358-5001.