Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Southeast Missourian to allow pseudonyms on online comments again

The Southeast Missourian has made several changes over time in how it manages comments below articles online. Throughout, our goal has been to encourage a positive forum for people to engage ideas, connect and be entertained.

At the same time, we understand that self-expression is messy, and anywhere people gather to share ideas and opinions, differences will emerge. Such differences are normal, healthy and can be productive, as long as they don't devolve into personal attacks, name-calling or worse.

Last year, we were close to shutting down online commentary, because it had become too costly to moderate responsibly. And our reliance on community members to flag inappropriate comments left too much delay in the process, concerning us and alienating some of our readers.

Southeast Missourian online commentary was ultimately saved thanks to a technology called Perspective API developed by Jigsaw, a unit of Google's parent company Alphabet, which extends the ability of our staff to quickly and more cost-effectively moderate questionable comments. Surveys indicate users noticed the difference. After three months of the system, rankings of our site as "civil" or "highly civil" jumped 17 percent. A year later, it is ranked more than 29 percent above the baseline. Highly toxic comments -- which the system helps us identify before posting to review -- were virtually eliminated.

Today, we are announcing more changes.

First, we will again allow commenters to use a pseudonym, if they so choose. This is a reversal of a previous change. After reviewing comments over a 4-year period, contrary to our previous theory, statistical analysis reveals that making people use their real names did not have an impact on the percentage or intensity of toxic comments. What did dramatically improve the tone of discussion was the Jigsaw technology, combined with clearer messaging and quicker moderator follow-up. This revelation probably doesn't surprise anyone who's been active on Facebook, witnessing the coarsening of comments there even though identities are largely known.

Another theory we announced when disallowing anonymity in April 2017 was that doing so would induce "local experts and officials" to engage more regularly, providing context to the community. That did not happen. In fact, surveys and comments suggest the opposite happened.

In addition, the number of people making comments dropped by more than half, actually diminishing the discussions. Here is an example of the comments we received in a recent survey:

"This is a small town and having people use their real names stifles valuable and often educated insight into matters in which they would rather not have their names publicly attached - much less stuck with for years to come via a simple Google search."

"I understand the reasoning behind taking ownership of comments by signing by name, but miss the opposing banter when they are fairly civil -- quite entertaining and they did spark interesting points on all sides. Wish you could go back to the anonymity and still keep the over-the-top comments in check. Most of us reading are mature enough to discern constructive opinions from blow-hardness. We can handle it, and it's more honest!"

"You should go back to allowing anonymous commentary. I know of people who no longer comment because they are concerned about maintaining their privacy. It's not that they used to make incendiary comments, it's that they didn't want the hassle of being tracked down or criticized personally by people who didn't agree with them."

Personally, I hope most people continue to use their real names when commenting. There is something courageous and honorable about being transparent in your opinion. And it means a lot more to the recipient if you're giving a compliment. But we also understand that in today's world of public harassment, it is more complicated than it once was.

Subscribers Only

The next change is that we will be enabling the posting of comments for subscribers only. We originally considered this idea because it had become costly -- in fees and staff -- to verify the identity of everyone who registered to comment. With the return of pseudonyms, such verification is less critical. Still, identification gives us safeguards in managing the system. And it potentially creates a more cohesive community, where commenters all have access to the original stories, thus making for more informed discussions. It also cuts down on one-time visitor comments from those outside the area who are unattached to it. We also hope -- though it was not our main intent -- the change may increase digital subscriptions, which we need to survive as a business.

Respect Button

The final change is more experimental, and we will likely tweak it over the next several months. We will be adding a rating button for users to vote whether they "Respect" a comment for civility. Our hope is that people do not vote according to "like" or "agree" but, instead, evaluate on how the commenter has presented his or her point. Ideally, people who disagree on an issue could respect others for how they provide information and make their arguments. To vote, a user will not need to have a subscription, but he or she will need to register so we can prevent vote stuffing.

We continually seek to improve commentary, because we believe a community positively and robustly engaged is a better place to live. As always, we welcome your feedback. Email me directly or, better yet, leave your comments below online. Changes will go into effect during the day, Wednesday, Oct. 9.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. His direct email: jrust@semissourian.com.