Web page commenting system about to change

Tom West - West Words
West Words by Tom West

Many of you have experienced sibling rivalry. So have I. As the youngest of three children, I was always the “little brother” even though I ended up as the tallest (although my brother still disputes that).

He was nine years older, however,  so he was out of college by the time we could have had a fair fight.

Not so with my sister, who had me beat by 31 months. For a time, we argued about everything, from infringing on one another’s territory in the back seat to who got to wash or dry the dishes.

Once, when I was about 10 or 12, I thought she was taking too long to read the funnies. We got in an argument over it, I snatched them and she, with longer fingernails, grabbed my arm, scratching it. To gain my revenge, I decided to paint the scratches with Mercurochrome.

Mercurochrome was my favorite antiseptic because it didn’t sting like rubbing alcohol or iodine. However, it was bright red in color and stained the skin, so when one dabbed it on, it left a mark that took several days to wash off.

I applied it liberally, all over my arm with the idea being my friends would ask me what happened, expecting me to say I fell off my bike or something similar, but then I would say, “Aw, my sister clawed me,” and then roll my eyes, being the macho guy I thought I was. It’s embarrassing to reflect back on it as an adult, but it made perfect sense as a 10-year-old.

Civilizing people comes hard, and takes training preferably — but sometimes bad experience — to learn how to behave.

I got my comeuppance when, in 1998, the federal government outlawed the sale of Mercurochrome. After all, it includes mercury. If I die of cancer at some future date, it may be because of the mercury I leached into my skin as a child for one of the lowest of reasons — seeking revenge.

Our poor mother, having to deal with our nonsense, often said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

The problem with words, however, is that, uttered in an uncivilized manner, they can and do incite people to use sticks and stones.

This is a long way around to a subject that has been bothering me ever since the advent of the Internet.

Although most people under 30 may not understand what I am talking about, it seems obvious to me and most Baby Boomers that there has been a loss of civility in our public discourse. At one time newspapers were the primary gatekeepers of information. As such, when people write letters to the editor, editors long ago determined that the letters must be signed. People who put their names behind what they say tend to be more responsible about it, thinking it through, realizing that what is said is as much a reflection on the author as it is on the subject.

Then, along came the Internet, and it was, and in many ways still is, the wild, wild West. Editors were told that the old ways were out, that if somebody wanted to post an anonymous opinion to your Web site, that was OK. It encouraged more free flowing discussions. No one had to be afraid of repercussions for what they said because nobody knew who said it.

From the newspapers’ point of view, it got even better when the courts ruled that we can’t be expected to prevent people from libeling one another on our Web site.

So what was the result?

As I see it, the level of discourse has made a steady descent into the basement. I have allowed to be posted on our Web site, and I see it on many other Web sites as well, the most mean, hurtful and despicable comments imaginable.

In some cases, we have had the same person (or at least the same computer) carrying on a conversation with itself on our Web site using two different pseudonyms. The schizophrenia was not obvious, but the viciousness was.

My attitude: Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.

It doesn’t make any difference if the Republicans or the Democrats, for example, are correct if, in the end, we treat each other with such disrespect that we can’t accomplish anything as a society. Maybe words don’t break bones, but who wants to live in a community where the people insult each other so freely?

As your editor, I’ve tried to put rules in place to encourage at least a minimum level of civility on letters to the editor, but I also recognize that we have a double standard with no holds barred on our Web page.

Well, that’s about to change.

In the next few days, we are making a change on our Web site. You can make comments, same as before, but they will be under the same name you use on Facebook. Commenters who already have Facebook pages will find it almost seamless. They won’t have to go to Facebook or leave the mcrecord.com Web site to comment. In fact, it will make it easy for them to post any comment to their Facebook page so that their friends can see what they wrote. It will also make it easier to post a link to one of our stories on their Facebook page so their friends can see it.

If you don’t have a Facebook page, you will no longer be able to comment on the Record’s Web site, but it’s not a big deal to set one up. Over 800 million people already have. And this way, while it’s not impossible to hide behind a false front,  visitors to the Record’s Web site will usually know who is saying what.

We fully expect that the anonymous insulters will be upset by this change. It may well reduce the number of comments on our articles. However, if it raises the level of discourse, it’s worth it. I look at it as another small step toward restoring civility to our public discussions.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].

  • I hope the civility is enforced

    There are good and bad things about anonymous comments. You’ve stated some bad ones, but there have been people who were finally allowed to speak their true feelings without fear of retaliation in their business or personal lives. That was a good thing, because that’s gone on around here a long time.
    Perhaps those who still want to say what they really think, or maybe just vent, will find other places than the Record where that’s possible.
    It seems to me that some people only think a comment is uncivil when they don’t agree with it, otherwise anything goes. If you’re an editor, you get to decide which is which, and have the right to print (or allow to be printed) anything you want. If you’re anyone else, you’re about to lose that right.

  • Why require Facebook affiliation?

    Why do those of us who choose not to get involved with the “Facebook world” need to be excluded from commenting on Record stories and opinion pieces? Wouldn’t it be more straight-forward in achieving your wishes, Tom, to just require Record Web commenters to use their names? What is the reason for adding the additional barrier to participation of having a Facebook account? Are there other newspapers in the now larger ECM universe who interject Facebook participation into the loop for online commenting? Is it too late to weigh in and request that the Record drop the Facebook requirement, and merely require folks to use their real names?

    I agree with the above commenter, who points out that there are both the good and bad aspects of anonymous comments. Most readers know the difference between mean name-calling and fair (though possibly adversarial)) anonymous comments. The Star Tribune manages to get around profane and grotesquely uncivil comments by simply not printing them. Their editors don’t stifle the free flow of ideas by requiring full names, or, worse, requiring that readers patronize Facebook’s business. There is still something to be said for an anonymous forum, especially in a somewhat petty, small town, in which people feel empowered to exercise their voice (without fear of personal reprisals/loss of business).

    Mr. Yoder, below, lists some interesting reasons why some folks choose not to get involved with Facebook, or choose to back out of it once involved. It may be worth a read (especially if you’re considering setting up a Facebook account ONLY because you want to continue commenting on the Record web page). It might be better to capitulate to Tom’s wishes, and keep your unwelcome, anonymous opinions to yourself, rather than join Facebook.

    Ten Reasons to Delete Your Facebook Account (by Dan Yoder)

    1) Facebook’s Terms Of Service are completely one-sided. Let’s start with the basics. Facebook’s Terms Of Service state that not only do they own your data (section 2.1), but if you don’t keep it up to date and accurate (section 4.6), they can terminate your account (section 14). You could argue that the terms are just protecting Facebook’s interests, and are not in practice enforced, but in the context of their other activities, this defense is pretty weak. As you’ll see, there’s no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. Essentially, they see their customers as unpaid employees for crowd-sourcing ad-targeting data.

    9) Facebook’s CEO has a documented history of unethical behavior. From the very beginning of Facebook’s existence, there are questions about Zuckerberg’s ethics. According to BusinessInsider.com, he used Facebook user data to guess email passwords and read personal email in order to discredit his rivals. These allegations, albeit unproven and somewhat dated, nonetheless raise troubling questions about the ethics of the CEO of the world’s largest social network. They’re particularly compelling given that Facebook chose to fork over $65M to settle a related lawsuit alleging that Zuckerberg had actually stolen the idea for Facebook.

    8) Facebook has flat out declared war on privacy. Founder and CEO of Facebook, in defense of Facebook’s privacy changes last January: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” More recently, in introducing the Open Graph API: “… the default is now social.” Essentially, this means Facebook not only wants to know everything about you, and own that data, but to make it available to everybody. Which would not, by itself, necessarily be unethical, except that …

    7) Facebook is pulling a classic bait-and-switch. At the same time that they’re telling developers how to access your data with new APIs, they are relatively quiet about explaining the implications of that to members. What this amounts to is a bait-and-switch. Facebook gets you to share information that you might not otherwise share, and then they make it publicly available. Since they are in the business of monetizing information about you for advertising purposes, this amounts to tricking their users into giving advertisers information about themselves. This is why Facebook is so much worse than Twitter in this regard: Twitter has made only the simplest (and thus, more credible) privacy claims and their customers know up front that all their tweets are public. It’s also why the FTC is getting involved, and people are suing them (and winning).

    6) Facebook is a bully. When Pete Warden demonstrated just how this bait-and-switch works (by crawling all the data that Facebook’s privacy settings changes had inadvertently made public) they sued him. Keep in mind, this happened just before they announced the Open Graph API and stated that the “default is now social.” So why sue an independent software developer and fledgling entrepreneur for making data publicly available when you’re actually already planning to do that yourself? Their real agenda is pretty clear: they don’t want their membership to know how much data is really available. It’s one thing to talk to developers about how great all this sharing is going to be; quite another to actually see what that means in the form of files anyone can download and load into MatLab.

    5) Even your private data is shared with applications. At this point, all your data is shared with applications that you install. Which means now you’re not only trusting Facebook, but the application developers, too, many of whom are too small to worry much about keeping your data secure. And some of whom might be even more ethically challenged than Facebook. In practice, what this means is that all your data – all of it – must be effectively considered public, unless you simply never use any Facebook applications at all. Coupled with the OpenGraph API, you are no longer trusting Facebook, but the Facebook ecosystem.

    4) Facebook is not technically competent enough to be trusted. Even if we weren’t talking about ethical issues here, I can’t trust Facebook’s technical competence to make sure my data isn’t hijacked. For example, their recent introduction of their “Like” button makes it rather easy for spammers to gain access to my feed and spam my social network. Or how about this gem for harvesting profile data? These are just the latest of a series of Keystone Kops mistakes, such as accidentally making users’ profiles completely public, or the cross-site scripting hole that took them over two weeks to fix. They either don’t care too much about your privacy or don’t really have very good engineers, or perhaps both.

    3) Facebook makes it incredibly difficult to truly delete your account. It’s one thing to make data public or even mislead users about doing so; but where I really draw the line is that, once you decide you’ve had enough, it’s pretty tricky to really delete your account. They make no promises about deleting your data and every application you’ve used may keep it as well. On top of that, account deletion is incredibly (and intentionally) confusing. When you go to your account settings, you’re given an option to deactivate your account, which turns out not to be the same thing as deleting it. Deactivating means you can still be tagged in photos and be spammed by Facebook (you actually have to opt out of getting emails as part of the deactivation, an incredibly easy detail to overlook, since you think you’re deleting your account). Finally, the moment you log back in, you’re back like nothing ever happened! In fact, it’s really not much different from not logging in for awhile. To actually delete your account, you have to find a link buried in the on-line help (by “buried” I mean it takes five clicks to get there). Or you can just click here. Basically, Facebook is trying to trick their users into allowing them to keep their data even after they’ve “deleted” their account.

    2) Facebook doesn’t (really) support the Open Web. The so-called Open Graph API is named so as to disguise its fundamentally closed nature. It’s bad enough that the idea here is that we all pitch in and make it easier than ever to help Facebook collect more data about you. It’s bad enough that most consumers will have no idea that this data is basically public. It’s bad enough that they claim to own this data and are aiming to be the one source for accessing it. But then they are disingenuous enough to call it “open,” when, in fact, it is completely proprietary to Facebook. You can’t use this feature unless you’re on Facebook. A truly open implementation would work with whichever social network we prefer, and it would look something like OpenLike. Similarly, they implement just enough of OpenID to claim they support it, while aggressively promoting a proprietary alternative, Facebook Connect.

    1) The Facebook application itself sucks. Between the farms and the mafia wars and the “top news” (which always guesses wrong – is that configurable somehow?) and the myriad privacy settings and the annoying ads (with all that data about me, the best they can apparently do is promote dating sites, because, uh, I’m single) and the thousands upon thousands of crappy applications, Facebook is almost completely useless to me at this point. Yes, I could probably customize it better, but the navigation is ridiculous, so I don’t bother. (And, yet, somehow, I can’t even change colors or apply themes or do anything to make my page look personalized.) Let’s not even get into how slowly your feed page loads. Basically, at this point, Facebook is more annoying than anything else.

    Facebook is clearly determined to add every feature of every competing social network in an attempt to take over the Web (this is a never-ending quest that goes back to AOL and those damn CDs that were practically falling out of the sky). While Twitter isn’t the most usable thing in the world, at least they’ve tried to stay focused and aren’t trying to be everything to everyone.

    I often hear people talking about Facebook as though they were some sort of monopoly or public trust. Well, they aren’t. They owe us nothing. They can do whatever they want, within the bounds of the laws. (And keep in mind, even those criteria are pretty murky when it comes to social networking.) But that doesn’t mean we have to actually put up with them. Furthermore, their long-term success is by no means guaranteed – have we all forgotten MySpace? Oh, right, we have. Regardless of the hype, the fact remains that Sergei Brin or Bill Gates or Warren Buffett could personally acquire a majority stake in Facebook without even straining their bank account. And Facebook’s revenue remains more or less a rounding error for more established tech companies.

    While social networking is a fun new application category enjoying remarkable growth, Facebook isn’t the only game in town. I don’t like their application nor how they do business and so I’ve made my choice to use other providers. And so can you.

  • I’m a little confused

    Tom, I’m a little confused…is calling someone you disagree with “schizophrenic” and “vicious” the start of your campaign for civility?
    I saw an ad with your picture in the Record recently that said words aren’t for hurting. Good advice for everyone, or just for others?