Much ado about Facebook (or: Why shouldn’t we ask commenters to use a real name?)

You may have read in the last couple of days about a decision by Trinity Mirror – my employer – to implement a commenting system on websites which requires log-in via Facebook.

Before I go on, I should stress I write this blog in a personal capacity. The Facebook decision was one I was involved in, as part of Trinity Mirror’s senior digital team, but I want to approach this from a journalist’s point of view, and also question the assumption that we should go for digital communities at all costs.

The Manchester Evening News is due to become the second regional news site I work with to migrate to a new content management system – escenic – next week, following the Birmingham Mail which migrated in November. More sites will follow – much more quickly – over the next 12 months. For both the M.E.N – which became part of TM in 2010 – and existing Trinity Mirror regional digital teams, the move offers the chance to wave goodbye to systems which had served us well in favour of systems which allow us to focus on content.

As part of the preparation for the switch, we wanted to alert users – including a substantial commenting community – on the M.E.N site about the fact that, for now, commenting will be possible through Facebook log in. Other log-in options may follow, but for now it’s Facebook, and despite the tone of some blog posts written about this – such as ex-MEN digital editor Sarah Hartley’s post – we decided to explain in detail what we were doing because we respect large numbers of that community.

(I’m always wary, personally, of blogging about former employers because I know an awful lot can change in the space of a few years, so I won’t dwell on the errors Hartley makes in describing how we are implementing the new site. Her suggestion that we were shocked by the reaction is wide of the mark too – proving the dangers of using a Tweet but not seeking context when drawing conclusions for a blog or article. And quite why people in Birmingham are commenters who can gather round issues of interest, I’m not sure… )

Press Gazette picked up on the article, and later on, so did Hold The Front Page. If you searched for Trinity Mirror on Twitter on Tuesday – the day the PG article appeared – there was a lot of discussion about it, and a fair number of the one-word opinion followed by a link. ‘Bonkers’ and so on.

At time of writing, there had been 189 comments on the article, most negative about the change. Go through the comments are there are about 50 people commenting – a fraction of the number of people who comment regularly, an even smaller fraction of those signed up to comment and an even smaller fraction of those who visit the site every day. So when people on Twitter talk about ‘scores of complaints’ and bloggers like Hartley talk of ‘backlashes’ it is done so without this context, which is a shame.   Especially when I’d flagged up the tiny volume in a Tweet which has been used to suggest I was ‘shocked.’ And, as anyone who has relaunched a website knows, you always get complaints. We did when we turned off our forums, and the BBC did when it updated its sport websites and removed functionality only used by a (vocal) minority.

Most of the people who have complained, and this particularly so in the case of those commenting on Twitter, seem to come from a starting point that news websites should allow free-for-all comments on all stories, and that the ‘community’ can say what it likes under any name it likes. I don’t see it like that.

Over the last 12 months, I have become increasingly concerned about the tone of essentially anonymous comments on our websites. We employ a lot of very talented journalists to write stories, and increasingly building digital communities around their work is second nature, regardless of whether we have comments or not.

So, having employed those journalists to produce high-quality content, we find ourselves using it online and then, increasingly often, finding comment threads taking an unsavoury tone which in turn leads to abuse of the journalists who have written the stories or of users.

Look at the first comment on the article which triggered this ‘outcry.‘ It’s offensive to the sports journalists, in my opinion. As journalists, we should have thick skins, but for the commenting community there is also a responsibility.

A responsibility to respect others within that community, which includes the journalists. We could just remove any comment which criticises us, but that would defeat the purpose of open discussion on our website. I’d much rather we encouraged people to log in via Facebook and post comments they aren’t ashamed of being associated with under their real name.

Hartley harks back to the fact to the MEN used to pre-moderate comments (and this is where we agree – it’s not a good thing). Legal advice means we can’t do that, and besides, it’s a near-criminal waste of time in a newsroom to do so. What’s more, I’d rather work to build up a community based on respect of each other which didn’t have to have every action pre-checked and scrutinised. What other sort of community would operate in that way?

Most of the comments on the MEN article conclude that if they have to use their real names, they just won’t comment. Why not, would be my question. Of course, you can still post comments via Facebook login using something other than your real name, but it’s just more complicated to set up.

Another alternative would be that we could spend more time building community and interacting with the comments. We could, we should, and we do. But look at the Guardian, which has thrown money at its community work and look at the comments which generally bedevil the articles it chooses to open comments on. Still not good. Again, I’d rather open comments on as many stories as possible, let the community decide what it wants to talk about and do so in a manner which is respectful to each other.

As someone who is interested in quality journalism, and creating sites which encourage people to keep visiting – and the MEN site has recorded excellent growth in this respect in the last two years under the leadership of talented journalists – I want as many people to read our content and feel they can join in with a discussion in a rewarding manner. For each complaint we’ve seen so far, we’ve had many more remarks – in person, via email, in research – from people who say anonymous comments drag the site down.

In Birmingham, we got some complaints about the Facebook log in but the number of comments hasn’t fallen off a cliff. The quality of the debate and discussion has improved, in my opinion. And traffic levels on the Birmingham Mail are now the fastest growing of any of our regional sites. New functionality, content concepts, designs and approach to news are all combining to create a site which I think is the best in the regional news business. And we will continue to get better. We will look at the concerns raised by users – but lets keep this in context.

I can only go back to what I said before: I believe that journalists should be open and accountable – in many ways, the internet has made this possible.

But I also believe that with that accountability should come an expectation that those interacting with us do so in a manner which is based on respect. To that end, Facebook commenting can only be a good thing for journalists.

17 thoughts on “Much ado about Facebook (or: Why shouldn’t we ask commenters to use a real name?)

  1. David,
    In the digital sphere it is all to easy to be aggressive/rude/obnoxious/downright evil (delete as appropriate) in total anonymity and so you see proper debate derailed just because someone can comment without consequence and troll for the sake of it.

    When I comment I always try (sometimes more successfully than others) and only say what I would say in a face to face discussion, its common decency, and hopefully the new process will go someway to reducing the number of trolls without impacting on the quality/value of debate.

    Some will no doubt argue it is intended to stifle debate and prevent people disagreeing but if anything I would say it will improvie debate as people have to be more considered in what they say and in supporting their claims.

    Healthy disagreement is no bad thing and provided it is done respectfully can be more valuable as it stimulates the wider conversation.



    1. Hi Lee,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right – disagreement is fine if it’s done in the right way – the same way you or I would in real life. Some of the abuse in the football sections of news sites is the worse. It stops being disagreement and starts just being nasty – why would you visit a site which was happy with that?

  2. I think you’ve rather overlooked the fact that most of the negative comments on the MEN announcement were about concerns over privacy and use of personal data, not pseudonyms.

    1. Hi Louise. Prompted by your comment, I read through all the comments again. Hardly any mention personal data. More mention not wanting to use Facebook. My post was more about why I feel this approach is good for journalists and for the quality of the site overall. You, for example, had no problem using your real name, why should others?

      1. But your readers don’t want to use Facebook because of privacy concerns! The fact that 600,000 users left Facebook in 2012 should have you at least asking questions why. For many, it’s because they don’t want everything cross-linked to Facebook. My Facebook is totally private, for example, as it is for many – only my friends have access to it. I don’t have a problem using my real name (although I’m registered on the Guardian site as Wordsmith for Hire) but there are plenty of Facebookers registered with daft pseudonyms so if you think forcing Facebook on your community will rid you of trolls I fear you are much mistaken.

      2. That’s as may be but – and I have to stress I don’t speak on behalf of the company here – no-one’s ever said it’ll be the only log in we will use in the future, but for now. I do think you’re making an assumption about the reasons why people don’t use Facebook, and at the same time we are talking about a tiny fraction of commenters who have complained.
        It’s been whipped up into something else by certain trade press coverage and ill-informed comment. I think it’s also worth remembering that you can still have a private Facebook presence and use it is a mechanism for commenting elsewhere – and not even have to have those comments posted back on your Facebook profile.
        As for beating the trolls, I never said the reason the company decided to do this was to beat the trolls, but that I hoped it would help. If it doesn’t, I’ll be disappointed, and as someone else commented on here earlier, there’s a danger trolls may win in the end.

    1. Hello Richard. That’s one way of looking at it. My fear is that the trolls will win and in some cases they have. We used to have forums which in the end became too exhaustive to manage and which advertisers would run a mile from. My fear is that if we don’t tackle anonymous commenting more robustly, the trolls will win.

  3. I’m sorry to say that because of this decision, I will no longer enter into debate on football matters on the MEN website.

    I hate Facebook and have no desire to do anything to let this company flourish. I don’t expect hindsight to be very kind about it.

    However I agree that something needed to be done. Every since the moderation of comments stopped, it has become an increasingly hate filled place. Some of us want to talk about the football, team selections, players form and tactics. Others have used it as a place to stoke up hate. Banter between rival fans can be fun (and funny) but much of what we have seen is unpleasant.

  4. >>Most of the comments on the MEN article conclude that if they have to use their real names, they just won’t comment. Why not, would be my question.

    Well I’m assuming by real name you mean real Facebook account.

    Many reasons, but they essentially distil down to privacy.

    You may not want your MEN posts linked to your personal Facebook account simply because they’re separate communities. You know 100% of your Facebook friends, and probably less than 1% of your MEN “friends”. Rather than wondering why anyone would not want to post with their Facebook account, I’d wonder why anyone would.

    There’s good reason to be careful about what and where you post unless you fully understand how Facebook works (and many don’t). There are plenty of examples of posts on Facebook affecting life outside of Facebook.

    For instance in the “new site” story there’s a lady posting how she thinks Facebook comments are fine because she has “nothing to hide”. Yet a cursory glance at her profile shows a link to her Facebook account where there are pictures of her children along with gps coordinates of her home address. Is this an issue? Well it could be depending on what she’s said and who’s reading.

    How this lack of anonymity works in an environment where journalistic anonymity is valued is worth thinking on. For example it seems to be saying the source for a story should be anonymous, while anyone commenting should not be. Yet there have been plenty of MEN stories where a person involved in the story has come forward and commented. And often when the discussion has been quite heated.

    A person may well want to remain anonymous on a story involving the Police, government, local council, racism, an EDF march, cyclists, a football team or in fact any interesting story at all where they have something controversial to say. And in my experience it’s often the most controversial stories which are the most commented.

    So, what if our “nothing to hide” lady submits a controversial comment to a story, for example involving racism? What then? It just takes one troll / idiot.

  5. I’m astounded and delighted at the miniscule amount of comments throughout the M.E.N. site since it’s facebook only switch. Even the major news and sports stories are relatively bereft of replies. I’ve spotted several stories and articles that in the past would have received literally hundreds of comments.

    Surely, and hopefully, the extent of the loss of has shocked even the M.E.N. Alas i fear that it will not make a jot of difference to them in taking on board their readers wishes. At the end of the day other major media sites and small websites have facebook AND email comments available.

    I’ve already joined MANY others on the new M.E.N. site with a false facebook account. Not so i can say anything bad but so i can speak my mind and stay safe. The safety concern is for people who comment (not flame or abuse) on a volatile topic. In these days of extreme reactions from extreme people (not talking terrorism either) this can have fearful consequences. It only takes five minutes with Google to figure where someone lives, works or socializes if they are using their real name on Facebook.

    1. Hi ‘Paul’,
      I can’t speak for the MEN, or for any title which my employers runs. However, from a personal point of view, I think the quality of comments on the site has improved.
      If you want to just take volume as an indicator of success, that’s up to you, but to me, building a community around content involves doing all you can to make it a welcoming place for people to get involved. That is what it feels the MEN has now.

  6. Fair enough that we are clearly going to agree to differ upon the specific issue of introducing the Facebook only policy. Some of my reasons against it i’ve already mentioned. In my final reply – it’s your page and i’ll be decent enough to let you have the last word lol lol – i would like to clarify a couple of points and also seek your opinion on two important arguments you’ve failed to address.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the MEN has had more than it’s fair share of those who were tediously abusive and dispruptive. However, one can set up a throwaway email address and Facebook account every day if one so wishes, therefore restricting comments to that medium isn’t exactly watertight against such behaviour. In your above breakdown of the initial responses you do a great disservice to swathes upon swathes of educated, polite and civil contributors to the MEN over the years. A lot of them are amongst those who simply will not use Facebook.

    To say the quality of the comments has improved well it’s early days……i suggest you wait to see what the site holds a year or less from now. Also, let’s not the forget the skewing of the demograph of opinions that will now be on display in the MEN. It certainly won’t be representative of the main body of people in Greater Manchester. Facebook ‘society’ has more of the ‘look at me me meeee’ type people who have absolutely no grasp of anything that isn’t facile or dumbed down. At least previously everyone had an opportunity to counterbalance any puerility, hostility or self-obsessed airheads.

    I would certainly pointedly ask you for a response on the safety concerns i referred to, in particular the significant danger of using one’s real name in a public forum, especially so in this day and age. Lots of potential dangers can arise, maybe someone one writes in complaining about a planning application for a massage parlour not knowing that there may be a local Mr Big or criminal gang behind it. Obviously anything to do with religion or politics can bring one to the attention of loose cannon extremists regardless of how polite you are in expressing your views. Oh yeah let’s not forget football’s lunatic fringe.

    Adding to my earlier observations of it taking only a few minutes of Googling to find out a plethora of information on a Facebook user, i was totally forgetting that most of those pages have photographs of the people too. Whilst in it’s own setting of a particular social group or shared interests that may be regarded ok, it’s not ok if one has expressed an opinion against a group of volatile people and you give them access to your real name.

    Second response graciously sought: do you personally know why other major media sites and at the opposite end of the scale small websites successfully manage to run Facebook and email comment facilities but the MEN/Trinity Group reckon it’s not technologically possible? Email commenters can be barred as easily as Facebook ones, BOTH methods of inputs of course are open to people opening multiple false accounts.

    Sincere thanks in advance of a reply, much appreciated, Paul.

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