At Large : A peek behind the curtain
Readers have raised three issues concerning the Comment feature on The Times website. The Comment feature invites mvtimes.com visitors to post comments in real time on news, editorials, features, and information posted on the site. It is an attempt to enlarge the conversation between the newspaper and its readers, and among those readers, by making it more of a flowing, day to day, two-way street. You talk, we - and everybody else - listen.
One reader, an occasional letter writer in the print edition as well as an occasional commenter, has more or less demanded that we require Comment participants to post over their own true names. We do require signatures from participants in the print Letters to the Editor, but not the online comments.
Another reader, this time in a Comment, proposes that I should edit or refuse to post certain comments that proffer unpopular views, in disagreeable language. The argument is that such posts expose a vein of opinion on Vineyard issues that many Islanders would prefer to imagine does not exist.
The third reader, a frequent and aggressive poster, just wants to know, and asks rather plaintively, why some of his posts see the light of day on mvtimes.com, and some don't.
In general, I like the Comment feature. It's common in online publications, including newspapers. And happily, most comment posters are terrific, inquisitive, critical, thoughtful, and above all, amiable. But, some are the opposite, in nearly every respect. So, we've set down some rules for Comment participants, including a requirement that each reads and agrees to the rules, then abides by them. And, we added a feature that lets you report to us posts that you don't think meet the standard. It is very little used, by the way.
The Comment poster is solely and wholly responsible for his or her comment, and we want you to have your say. The body of law concerning online publication is new. It offers little guidance. By comparison, the laws of libel and privacy affecting print publication are well developed, girded with precedents and comprehensible. Today, the law as it pertains to online publication, taken broadly, says that anything goes. That will certainly change. I certainly hope so. But, for now, online posters, bloggers, publishers, are accorded great freedom.
Nevertheless, we're not anything goes types. Although the law says we don't have to, that we can let you say just exactly what you feel like saying, we've set down some rules about how you can say it. The digital age contributes an interactive feature that, undeniably, adds to the conversation. But, as witness some of the posts of the past few weeks, it may also degrade the conversation at times.
Ours is a newspaper and a website for a general and genial readership, and we don't want to wince when we read what you've written. This doesn't mean that we have any interest in allowing one point of view but blocking another. All points of view are, if not welcomed, then at least tolerated. The issue is how they are expressed. Those readers who are passionate about their First Amendment rights but indifferent to yours will be unhappy, and so be it.
About names. I don't like anonymity. It would be better if every poster, like every letter writer whose words appear among the Letters to the Editor, in print and online, included his or her name. If you've something worth saying, stand behind it. But, the rules are different for the words that The Times publishes and the words that you post. We put our names on what we publish and ask those who would have us publish their letters in print and online to do the same.
Online, we permit posters to the Comment feature to post anonymously or pseudonymously, but they must live with the diminished authority of what they write. When you put your name to what you write, it matters a great deal. When you don't, it matters less.
Another poster argued recently that posting anonymous or pseudononymous comments allows participation by posters who are not timid about their views but worry about social or commercial blowback against them in the Island community for holding and expressing unpopular views. It's a persuasive argument. The community we serve is more varied than we think. While the apparent predominance of some points of view may suggest that we're a one-trick pony, in fact the herd of us is variegated in looks and views, and we're tough on the heterodoxical among us. This newspaper is interested in the real nature of the community we serve, including outlying attitudes and views.
We're not interested in intemperate nastiness. That's why we wrote the rules the way we did. And, I quote in part: "Comment participants agree to contribute thoughtful observations, in civil terms. Participants agree to refrain from employing insulting, vulgar, or excessively personal language. Mvtimes.com reserves the right to remove or edit posts we judge to be incompatible with this standard..." All commenters must read and agree before participating.
And, we've added yet another hurdle which requires that I read and approve, or read and can, each offered comment. It's a wearing job, mainly because many of the comments describe attitudes and views that strike me as offensive or at least ill-considered. I suspect they will strike others that way too, but they meet the threshold standard for approval.
It's easier when one of these harsh opinions is combined with name calling or mockery. Then the commenter's view, which may be authentic though debatable, gets tossed. Many posters have figured this out for themselves. But, for those who need more explicit prescriptions, try this.
The best thing is to state your view without reference to an earlier poster. If you must, reference an earlier view, but not the earlier poster. If you describe the earlier view as "liberal," that's okay. If you call its author a "liberal weenie" or a "right wing thug," the comment won't see the light of day. If you write that the earlier comment was "nonsense," that works. If you write that the earlier commenter was "brain dead" "two cards short of a full deck" a "commie flower child," or a "racist Neanderthal," or a "twit" or a "blowhard" or a "bozo" or a "flower child," or "retarded," your comment is out. Distilled, the rule is, discuss the issue or the view, let your opinions roam freely. Do not personalize.