Sunday, June 01, 2008

Speech, Freedom, and the Internet

If you haven't noticed, the Standard Times has put their web comments on hold. I understand their reasoning and concerns, and I hope they thoroughly analyze the situation and bring the comments section back in a much improved manner. Reading the column today, though, doesn't leave me with a feeling of confidence.

First off I have to admit I have been dealing with electronic forums since before the internet was public. I was on the dial up computer bulletin boards back when a 300 baud modem was state of the art. I was on Compuserve (anyone else remember them) when they were about a year old. I have watched (and sometimes participated) in flame wars. The comments on the Standard times comments have gotten extreme sometimes, but if you really want to see how it's done you need to look at usenet (easily accessible through and pay close attention to alt.flame and the various subgroups. I won't get in to the gritty details, but one of the groups has a subtitle "looking for the ultimate flame in return", so you can use your imagination. The interesting thing is that most usenet groups and other online forums are basically civil and manage to spread information and opinion and keep the flames, spam and other annoyances and hazards to an acceptable level. And they have done it while allowing anonymous free speech.

The key to a successful forum is a process called moderation. In its simplest definition moderation is just enforcing the rules. Moderation of forums is an ongoing process. It requires diligence and the ability to enforce rules. If you want a nice, civil, forum you have to be willing to strictly enforce the rules. You have to be willing to kill comments that break the rules, and you have to ban posters who break the rules. I normally use a 2 strikes rule. First time you break the rule, you get a warning. Next time you're banned. There are a number of tools that can be used to keep the unwanted away. Blocking emails, IP addresses, and lots of other tools can be used to keep a forum under control. You'll never get it perfect but you can make it great.

If we look at the Standard Times, and its forums, they really didn't do moderation well for quite a while. Since the comments feature came on line, there have been comments that were left on that should have been pulled. There were personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off topic posts that had nothing to do with the story that were let slide up until about half way through the last chiefs campaign. They finally started pulling some comments, and they still banned very few posters. By the time the FLDS news hit the paper, the comments were completely out of control. The genie was out of the bottle. Then, in the middle of all this, there was a poorly explained problem with their website that for about a day that disclosed the given name as well as the screen name of all of those posting comments. I still don't understand how a so called system wide change to the 19 Scripps websites only seems to have caused this problem to the Standard Times, especially when all the different websites seem to have different settings on how comments are handled. The reality is that it is time for the paper to close comments until new procedures and strategies can be put into place. They need some serious introspection.

Reading todays column over, I have a number of concerns with their approach. There have been many complaints similar to that made by aj432 long before May 22nd. Why did it take so long to react? Why have responses up until now so been ineffective? Why is it that the rest of the Scripps family of websites aren't having this many problems?

I am also very concerned that "anonymous" posting might disappear. As was shown not too long ago, the Standard times doesn't have truly anonymous posting. They still maintain a given name and an email address along with a posting history. Their current policy of keeping the given name private does give a certain amount of discreet privacy, while allowing the Standard Times to contact the poster in case of problems. If they keep the current registration procedure, they really have no way to ensure that the name the poster gave while registering is his true name. I wonder how many posters named GW Bush, M Mouse, J Davis, T Vasquez, etc. are currently signed up. There are also some much more fundamental reasons that at least some degree of anonymity should be available to the posters.

We must remember that this country has a long and proud history of anonymous commentary, especially political. Before and during the Revolution, there were numerous pamphleteers publishing articles on the injustices they saw at the time. Anonymity was important. If their identity had become known, they would have been lucky to just be hanged. Many writers in the abolitionist movement wrote anonymously for the same reasons. They were putting their life on the line to state their beliefs. Speaking out can still be dangerous today. Jobs, property, and lives can still be at stake no matter if the comments are true or not.

Then we have the history of the adoption of the constitution, with the federalist and anti-federalist papers. One of the reasons they were written under pseudonyms was so the ideas would be able to stand on their own merits, not on the reputation of the writers. Granted, many insiders knew who Publius was, but most of the audience read the papers before they knew who the author was, which gave the articles a chance at a somewhat unbiased read. This is still a meaningful goal today. There are times when an activist, official, or just well known person needs to present an idea that stands on its own merits, not on the public perception of its presenter. Anonymous speech is necessary for truly free speech and a healthy community dialog.

That doesn't mean there is little the standard times can or should do. There are some basic procedures they can implement to get their comments section back on track and still have a dynamic, healthy website.

First, limit the number of posts a day a person can do. You are already doing that in the print edition by limiting letters to the editor to one every 30 days. Between using email addresses, IP addresses, and cookies for tracking, there are ways to keep people from going overboard on the number of posts. Limit each poster to 1 post per day per topic, and 5 posts per day total, and a lot of the problems will disappear. Far too many of the current posters are using the comments section as little more than a public chat room. Some don't have a life, so are posting or responding twenty or more times a day. Limit them to one good post a day, with a response being unavailable until the next day, and the quality of the postings will improve, and the amount of vitriol will diminish significantly.

Next, enlist the web community in policing of the comments. Set the software up so that you can have posters that can moderate certain sections, and then get volunteers you can trust to help moderate the comments. Set it up so that all of their decisions can be reviewed and undone by staff if need be, but there should be plenty of people willing to help.

If you can't get help in moderating a section, set a limit on the numbers of posts per day that will be allowed. 25 to 50 might be a good starting point but flexibility will be needed to get it right.

Additionally, have staff respond to posts that are getting close to the edge within the comments section from time to time. Public explanations of how a post failed to meet the rules helps motivate all posters to play by the rules better. Remind them that free speech is not unfettered, unrestricted speech. It's your soap box and you get to decide the rules.

As I stated earlier, I have been participating in online forums for over 30 years. I know that you can run a successful forum and still have anonymous, intense, active discussions. I realize that the comments are the Standard Times soap box, and that they are a business, and they have the right to take their soap box away if they so choose, but I also know that they do want a open, healthy dialog on the issues. It contributes greatly to a healthy environment and community. I hope they consider this post and my suggestions carefully. In the mean time, we at conchoinfo will be maintaining our policy of allowing anonymous posts. It takes work, but is worth the effort. We may change how we do moderation, but anonymous speech is too important a part of free speech to be eliminated without exhausting other options.


  1. I agree there is a huge difference between a chat room and blog. I perceive many of the participants are gifted writers who aspire to write good responses. Then as you mention, many are attracted by the chat atmosphere. They like intellectual debate, in live time.

    Then I would perceive, there are some simply outraged by anyone who doesnt agree with them. I imagine there are several of those types who would have liked to pull the plug a long time ago.

    Originally, I was attracted to the discussions because there were valuable insights not normally available in any media. Hearing everyones views, allows you to gain more information and understanding.

    I believe the downfall is related to the highly controversial topics in play. Many feel strongly about the presidential campaign, the police chief race, the FLDS case, and many other topics.

    My final view is this. If the site is no longer anonymous, then it will be sort of dangerous to engage in heated debates. That particular group will have to look elsewhere for their entertainment.

    That is fine with me. At a certain point, it stopped being a learning tool, and turned into nothing but unsolveable arguments.

  2. Anonymous,

    They needed to get the forums under control early and keep them under control. Block individual topics when it gets out of hand. Lots of techniques available beyond the basic ones I've already mentioned. It can be done. Most newspapers are already doing it.

    Anonymous postings will always be welcome here, as long as our simple rules are obeyed. We may adjust our moderation strategies, but it's just too important to do otherwise.

  3. Many perceived the comments were getting out of control and there was need for moderation.

    There are other factors involved too. For one, there is the view that all San Angelo residents are judged as a community by the world. That we must meet some expectation or threshold the viewers around the world decide on.

    Do we hold other cities to this standard?

    Then, by coincidence, we happen to have one of the most controversial debates in history about polygamy and child abuse.

  4. I feel like there is more at play that the paper being hyper-sensitive to the opinion of the citizens of other cities. Perhaps they fear that the mess they created is going to lead to legal problems. I certainly don't know but I have thoroughly enjoyed most of the dialogue. I personally never got involved at all until the release of the "Rangers Report" regarding hte chief of police. It seemed evident to me that the incumbent was out of control. 52% of the voters didn't see it that way and I never made another comment on that subject. The people had spoken. What did concern me about he report was the apparent willingness on the part of the chief to get revenge on anyone that opposed him. For that reason alone I am still not willing to post unless it can be anomously. I fear retribution.

  5. Several years ago the Standard Times hosted a similar venue for reader comments. Some comments did not make San Angelo look like a very good place to live. Hence, that venue was removed.

    I have read the comments for nearly every article that appeared in the e-paper since its inception. It keeps me in touch with real San Angelo - all facets of it.

    Comments often tell the other side of a story, or include important information left out of the story.

    All that is now gone.

    This afternoon I found better and more timely FLDS stories (with comments) in a Houston paper, then what was being provided by the Times.

    But, my concern is for the future, when SAISD starts in again wanting money for........... The FLDS story is merely passing through.

  6. It may also be that Sr. Archuleta and company want to keep dissent at a minimum while Vasquez goes through the ethics complaints. I am sure that since Mr. Ryan filed one of the complaints that we will be kept apprised here.

  7. Personally, I would like to see the traffic divert to this site.

    Then we have intellectuals in control who understand the aspects of discussing a topic. They also have a knowledge of writing and how to identify its weaknesses.

    Really, its humorous if you consider many arguments or quarrels are the result of ineffective communication or writing practices.

    I know that may seem odd to some. However, I can speak from personal experience, that I don't truly understand my own views, until I attempt to write them.

    So yes, hearing and vision are great forms of communication, but I honestly believe writing is the best.

    This is especially true when you remove the inhibitions, such as personal injury, job loss, or public humiliation.

    Lol, well I've certainly enjoyed some great minds sharing their wisdom. I learned very much, yet not a good time to stop. The project isn't completed.

    I think George Bush Sr set a good example. He said something once that really influenced me. With all of the heated debate, and mudslinging, he just simply put it in perspective. He said something like, if that fellow wants to go off the deep end thats his business. Then he returned his focus to the more important things in life. So, he elegantly led a public life, but maintained his dignity and privacy in the process.

    To end, a confession. I am guilty of not being a gentleman at times in the heated debates. I do regret that, and it is an area for improvement.

    The human psychy is a fragile thing. Some people are more naive than others. So, there are certain things, that when you start to explore in depth, will disturb many people.

    The moderators have to be wise enough to know when something is inappropriate, like slander, or when a conversation has reached a sorta stalemate, and when there are true wierdos, criminals, or vulgar.

    I honestly dont think the Times has anyone intellectual enough to discern those things.

    I'm pretty sure we have them here.

  8. On second thought, that may not be the point. In honesty, I respect the Times and their people. They are a great group. So it is unfair to say they lack anything. They do have a very intelligent staff.

    I guess its more like trying to control a mob. The FLDS and various groups around the US were directly attacking the people of San Angelo.

    I think the Times is simply being cautious and I dont blame them.

    Okay, I exceeded my post limits, time to move on.

  9. If people in this town would search they would find there are smaller towns with smaller papers across the country that have open blogging and although sometimes discussions get heated or off topic, it is not so out of control that the blogging ability has been suspended or revoked.
    The Standard Times took the letter of complaint from out of towners too much to heart and cares more about appearances than substance.