Can Internet Commenting Be Saved?

Newsweek DailyBeast started a blog last week, Zion Square, dedicated to “a new conversation about the future of Israel, Palestine and The Jewish Future.” It’s a telling sign of the state of Internet commenting that this “conversation” doesn’t include the ability for readers to leave comments. Peter Beinart, the respected journalist running Zion Square, essentially threw in the towel on Internet comments adding much to an important, contentious issue — at least until he can find staff to moderate them.

“We’d love to feature comments; most of them would be excellent, and we want to foster a conversation with our readers,” he wrote on Friday. “We do not, however, want to provide a venue for neo-Nazis and racists. We also do not love personal abuse.”

Hand-wringing over Internet comments is nothing new. YouTube’s comments have been notoriously toxic for years. Woe is the the hardy soul who puts on waders to delve into the thousands of incoherent rants on a typical Huffington Post politics story. The commenter troll is a venerable Internet archetype.

There have been two main ways to deal with this problem. The absolutists view Internet commenting as messy but essential. The registrars believe real identities will do away with the willingness to spill bile. Neither solution is perfect, of course, because both are blunt approaches.

Some publishers are tinkering around the edges. ZDNet recently changed its commenting system to combat the trolls and spammers that flock to the site by incorporating registered comments. The New York Times updated its system to highlight trusted readers, which also pushes down anonymous commenters.

Nick Denton’s Gawker, which arguably made its name thanks to its freewheeling comments areas, is so dismayed at the state of Internet commenting that he sees it as a threat to his media company. In effect, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Gawker is introducing a homegrown commenting system that is designed to promote intelligent discussion. “We want to create rights and responsibilities within threads,” he said at South by Southwest last week.

Gawker’s move is a sign that third parties haven’t completely solved this problem. Disqus, which has about 70 million users (and can be found on more than 1 million sites), is one of the more popular third-party commenting systems. Livefyre is another commenting system working to stem the tide of trolling comments.

And, of course, there’s Facebook. The social network’s philosophy that the Web should not be anonymized is seen at the bottom of many publications, forcing commenters to sign in on Facebook and be known that they are the ones commenting. Since TechCrunch made the move to Facebook comments, it has found there are fewer comments as a whole but higher-quality comments. And it seems to have eliminated trolls.

“One way or the other, you’re seeing the personal identifiable social Web seep into the open Web,” said Troy Young, president of Say Media. “It’s happening quickly. More and more, what you’re doing in Facebook is tied to your identity, and that’s one way to clean up comments.”

Jordan Kretchmer, Livefyre’s CEO, sees a nuanced difference between anonymity and accountability to a persona. He argues that as the Web becomes more human, we need to look at it with the same measures we do in real life.

“People should be allowed to participate using different personas within different communities, just as I act differently around my friends when I’m out on Friday night than I do around my investors in the board room,” he said. “I deserve the right to be whichever version of myself that I want to be depending on the situation.”

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