Sunshine for the Virtual Town Hall

Great opinion piece by Tom Grubisich at Washinton Post. It talks about the lack of transparency with user generated content.

These days we want “transparency” in all institutions, even private ones. There’s one massive exception — the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet “handles” — gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.

Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. “Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you’ll have money to expand the school,” he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.

You notice his nametag — “anticrat424.” Between his sentences, you interject, “Excuse me, who are you?”

He gives you a narrowing look. “Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent’s police on me? Hah!”

In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.

This is a real problem with the Internet (Although I am not sure about “transparency in all institution” especially with the government)…With the lack of incentives to participate and lack of tools for the community to control the conversation, the vocal and vilest few take over the conversation and bring down the quality of discourse. Tom suggests a few solutions:

Until recently, many of the site’s posters identified themselves with anonymous Internet handles — which were the site’s default ID. Now, people must enter a “user ID” that appears with their comments.

Hal Straus, washingtonpost.com’s interactivity and communities editor, says the changes “move us in the direction of transparency.” But the distinction is not quite a difference, because washingtonpost.com user IDs can be real names or fictional Internet handles. While the site prohibits comments that are libelous, abusive, obscene or otherwise inappropriate, Mr. anticrat424 could still find a well-amplified podium at washingtonpost.com.

The news and opinion site Huffingtonpost.com requires posters to register with their real names but maddeningly assures them that it will “never” use those names.

Though not foolproof, there are ways to at least raise the bar. Gordon Joseloff, a former CBS News correspondent who owns WestportNow.com, a popular grass-roots site in Westport, Conn., used to employ the standard permissive registration process. But in late 2005, turned off by the venom of anonymous posters, Joseloff instituted a policy requiring anyone who wanted to comment to use his or her real name. Joseloff also requires registrants to give their phone numbers. Numbers aren’t posted on the site, but they give him and his team an additional check against false registration.

Only the big sites like the Washington Post or Huffington Post can pull off requiring users to register…And its really painful for readers to have to remember another username and password. So what is the solution? Also there is a need to strike the right balance between the need for anonymity and identification…At times Anonymity is justified, like with whistleblowers etc. but at the same time anonymity all the times provides perverse incentives…What do you think?

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