Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I stopped allowing anonymous comments

A number of readers have complained to me that it's more difficult to comment on The Gray Report than before. I'm sorry for that, so I'd like to explain why I stopped allowing anonymous comments -- and why I'm going to let them back in, briefly, tomorrow.

I've thought a lot about my policy on anonymous comments since winemaker Charles Smith sued some of my readers in 2010.*

(Brief non-update: Smith has never sued me, has not yet hit me hard enough to knock out my diaphragm, and since I'm not a party to the suit, I don't know what's going on. If you do, email me.)

The thing about anonymous comments is that the most valuable of them are not actually anonymous: they are simply people who haven't registered for whatever comment program one uses (I use the one provided by Blogger) but sign their name anyway.

An old-school journalistic adage is to allow people you have written about a chance to respond. I liked having a low barrier to that. I'd say comments like this only accounted for about 2% of the "anonymous" comments I received, but they were important to me.

Other signed comments from non-affected parties brought the total of anonymous-but-actually-signed comments to about 10%.

Another important category is people with inside information. I got a lot of these relative to other blogs because winemakers would report techniques they use that they didn't want associated with their wine brands. (Ask me how chocolate wine is made some time -- I just learned recently.) I love these comments, but they were probably less than 5% of my anonymous comments.

The remaining 85% of my anonymous comments were generally:

* Unsigned comments that really didn't have to be anonymous: observations, jokes, whatever: 15%.

* Scam comments, often leading people to a sleazy website to boost its SEO ratings: 20%. I didn't think eliminating anonymous comments would reduce these, but it has, dramatically.

* Insults of me, 50%.

I've been taking insults -- and giving some back -- for years. Why did the latter finally wear me out?

Here's a little view of how Blogger works. You must set comments to be moderated on old posts because otherwise companies will go into all of your older posts and comment sales pitches, SEO-boosting scams, etc. You can't possibly police everything you've ever written, but if not, some post you wrote about Croatian wine a year ago will have a series of comments like "Best sex views vision manhood increasing 96 times natural viagra click here for details."

When you set up comment moderation, Google sends you a helpful email early in the morning every day with all of the comments that await your approval.

I've been doing this blog for a while now and I have hundreds of old posts. So nearly every single day, somebody would click on something I wrote 6 weeks or 6 months ago and write, "Idoit. Moron. U think everything bad like you r."

Every day. Before breakfast.

I laughed for weeks, sighed for weeks more. Turned so many other cheeks that I felt like a butcher with a shipment of cow heads.

When I worked for other media, I got comments like this. But I didn't have to face them until I'd showered, dressed, commuted. Prepared myself. Plus, I was getting a salary and benefits, which always makes crap more palatable.

There was no one comment that did it; nothing that went over the line. In fact, the creative insults tend to be signed; people want you to recognize their work. The anonymous ones are mostly, "U suck u suck so bad dumaass."

When I realized I was considering never opening my email before breakfast, I decided the time had come to make a simple change. I moved up to the next level of verification required by Blogger. I'm sorry that it has made it a little more difficult for my longtime readers to comment, but my mornings have been so much nicer.

So why am I going back?

Because I heard something recently, an intriguing current-events wine story, that I think simply cannot be reported without true anonymity. I haven't seen it reported anywhere yet and I'd like to get at the facts.

So tomorrow I'll run a short post about it: take a look. And after I've had breakfast, I plan to turn anonymous comments back on. I won't leave it on for long; the Internet's not getting nicer. But I do want to experiment, to see if occasionally allowing anonymous comments will get me a higher percentage of the valuable ones.

See you tomorrow, friends. Ladies. Gentlemen.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


WineHarlots said...

Such a tease!

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh, but I'll deliver in the end.

Rick Kushman said...

Good for you.

I'm also a former newspaper guy and my old paper, the Sacto Bee, still allows anonymous comments, and they rarely -- extremely rarely -- add much to the story or discussion. They just coarsen the debate and tick people off, but they serve neither journalism nor the general spread of useful information.

I'm not a free speech expert, and I understand that political speech needs to be unfettered, but, seriously, did anyone who signed the Bill of Rights envision the kind of silly, mean-spirited venting that often pops up online. (Not to mention, did they envision online, period?) Signing our names forces a bit of civility and a few second thoughts when we write. Those are good things. Way to go.
-Rick Kushman

Unknown said...

You could just set up a separate email for this blog (as a contact and for moderation of comments). Set up filters for the scam/astroturfing stuff using keywords and then open it before lunch.

W. Blake Gray said...

Rick: My former employer, the San Francisco Chronicle, requires commenters to register, yet it still gets more trolls than any other site I've ever seen. I think it has to do with being in San Francisco, because many of the worst are people name-calling about liberal thinking. In the same way that liberals during the Bush era seemed to get their jollies from outrage -- and some still do over the Palin clan -- I believe conservatives get an extra thrill from being boors in front of a San Francisco audience.

What I've never understood from newspaper website comments is why people feel the need to chip in while saying nothing. Articles about wine elicit a lot of comments like, "Who needs wine? Beer is better. And cheaper." OK, but why bother reading an article about wine then? Spend too much time reading comments on newspaper websites and you begin to lose hope for the human race.

SUAMW: The first was another step I considered taking, before deciding I wasn't going to let people who can't even spell "dumbass" dictate my life and schedule. As for the second, I think it would be too confusing for readers if I turned anonymous comments off and on every day.

My thinking now is to give a warning like this one, albeit maybe in the same post, whenever I plan to allow anonymous comments in the future. But this is an experiment, so I can't say for sure what I'll do.

Lisa Granik MW said...

Blake - A wag once said the internet is where ignorance meets arrogance meets mob rule. It offers the opportunity for cheap shots - like flipping someone off in a car - because the person feels s/he can get away with it.
Cheers for taking a stand for civility and thought-full-ness.

Mark said...

I'm so glad I read this a day late. And I can even comment anonymously!