A Google+ discussion about news comments

Google+ will undoubtedly have many impacts on the journalism uses of Social Media. I’m looking forward to reading what the other contributors to the August edition of the Carnival of Journalism muse about.

One of the more interesting issues that has been rekindled is over the use of real names vs “handles” or users names or pseudonyms.

Google’s rigid requirement of real names … it really doesn’t have a “user name” … and the fact that whatever account name is used is the one used for all other Google products has sparked a tremendous amount of debate.

While a social media communities and article comment areas are not exactly the same thing, I think there are threads and implications in this debate for news organizations, their web sites and their commenters.

Prior to Google+’s launch, there had been a growing chorus against anonymity for comments on news sites. Long-time blogger and Internet figure Anil Dash may have come up with the best headline: IF YOUR WEBSITE’S FULL OF ASSHOLES, IT’S YOUR FAULT.

In an excellent follow up post, he said:

“This isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing — many great sites can, and do, allow vigorously dissenting or unpopular views, from anonymous or pseudonymous commenters, without degenerating into cesspools of unkindness. But if a site allows racist or sexist or hateful comments to persist in its conversations, … then they’re not merely giving a home to an awful conversation. Instead, that site owner is signifying to members of the groups being attacked that they would rather profit from the page views of the people leaving those comments than make a welcoming, inclusive space for the people being attacked.

Dash separates anonymous comments and the use of pseudonyms from the problem of hateful speech and trollish behavior. Many do not.

Some sites have switched to requiring Facebook authentication to comments, some are using Facebook’s commenting system, and the voices of editors and journalists and others railing against acerbic anonymous comments have grown louder.

Whether it was meant to include article comments or not, the debate over real names on Google+ has brought some focused, thoughtful discussion around the subject.

Writing in Gizmodo yesterday, Derek Powazk said:

I think we’re witnessing a fascinating shift in online culture. The era of hacker handles is over. We’ve grown out of it … The Internet is not a second life anymore, it’s your first one. You don’t slip into a pseudonym when you use the phone, why should you be someone else online? Hacker handles were training wheels, and they’re off the bike now whether you like it or not.

Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake has a different take:

Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups. There’s even a comprehensive list of people harmed by Real Names policies. In the cases where pseudonyms are being abused, it is the harm that should be stopped, not the pseudonyms.

She says strong moderation is the solution to keeping trolls in check.

Danah Boyd has weighed in with a couple of blogs posts, but about trolls, she said this:

… a “real names” policy doesn’t stop an unrepentant troll; it’s just another hurdle that the troll will love mounting. In my work with teens, I see textual abuse (“bullying”) every day among people who know exactly who each other is on Facebook. The identities of many trolls are known. But that doesn’t solve the problem. What matters is how the social situation is configured, the norms about what’s appropriate, and the mechanisms by which people can regulate them (through social shaming and/or technical intervention). A culture where people can build reputation through their online presence (whether “real” names or pseudonyms) goes a long way in combating trolls …

I don’t expect this debate to end soon.

I do know wresting with trolls is demanding and not what many journalists consider part of journalism.

I’m hopeful that some of the suggestions and guidelines recommended by Joy Mayer get fully discussed by editors and newsrooms and in a Google+ circle for that matter.

Some more links for your consideration are below:

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