One day last week, the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about how some eligible families are not receiving welfare-to-work benefits, due to snafus in the system. It quickly drew a spate of online comments.
Opined "golfergirl": "As a tax payer I am tired of footing the bill for people who have no business having children they can't support." Added "Remember_me": "I bet the Charter cable bill gets paid monthly along with a nice daily expenditure to whoever makes Newports." Chimed in "Eggbert": "Why do we try so hard to derail natural selection?"
The question is not whether comments like these advance the discussion of issues; of course they don't. The question is: Would people post such stupid and meanspirited remarks if they could not do so anonymously?
It's a question being asked nationwide. The New York Times reported last week that some media are moving to give prominence to named commenters, or at least make folks register and provide some personal information. One paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, recently exposed a judge who was posting anonymous comments about a lawyer; this prompted a lawsuit from the judge and praise from a columnist, who called anonymous comment streams "havens for...crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness."
In Madison, the Badger Herald drew fire in February for allowing anonymous threatening and anti-Semitic comments to be posted to an article. (These were later removed, and the paper last week adopted a stricter policy for monitoring comments.)
UW journalism school director Greg Downey noted in a post: "Anonymity is supposed to allow one safe participation in an online forum without fear of reprisal in the real world; however, the juvenile and mob-like aggression and assault invited by an open anonymous forum can serve to chill the very speech it was intended to protect."
All Madison media outlets reserve the right to reject or delete comments that use foul language or wage personal attacks. But almost all let people comment on stories using pseudonyms, sometimes with little to ensure that even the website host knows who they are.
At WKOW Channel 27, for instance, those seeking to comment are asked to register their name, address and email as well as their chosen user name. But the site last week accepted a post from commenter "Bloughhard" who said his real name was Joe Blough, didn't give a home address (optional) and said his email address (required) was firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even laxer is WMTV Channel 15, which accepts comments from anyone who gives a first name and location. But WMTV reviews all posts before they go up - unlike other local outlets, which review posts after the fact.
"We've done it that way since we started allowing comments, in 2007," says Geoff Shields, the station's director of operations. The posts are screened for profanity (someone at WMTV actually entered a set of naughty words into a filter system) and other no-nos - including, quaintly, links to other stories or sites. A handful of comments are disallowed each week, but Shields says the site's users are mostly well behaved.
At Channel 3000, the website for WISC Channel 3, posters must register, but no one checks to make sure they give accurate information, confirms the site's managing editor, David Hyland. "There's a healthy amount of anonymity to the whole process," he says, while conceding there's a "downside" to this approach.
"On a daily basis, we'll remove comments for potential libel, profanities, racial content," he says. The site wants to be as open as possible to viewer feedback, but, Hyland points out, "This isn't necessarily the village square. All of these sites are commercial efforts, and your freedom of speech isn't absolute here."
At Madison.com, commenters must register and give an email address, and their accounts are not activated until they respond to an email sent to that address. But the commenters' identity can be concealed in their posts.
"We revisit the issue periodically, usually after somebody goes way out of bounds," says Tim Kelley, digital media manager at Capital Newspapers, which runs Madison.com. He notes that The Capital Times doesn't allow comments on its letters to the editor, for fear that people won't want to write if "folks can take shots in reply while hidden behind a screen name." The Wisconsin State Journal has no such constraint.
By far the strictest local policy is maintained by Isthmus, which only accepts comments to articles from people who register and use their real first and last names, and deletes comments from anyone it catches using fake information.
"We think that the level of quality of comments is much higher if people sign their names," explains Isthmus digital media director Jason Joyce, noting that this same policy applies to published letters. Plus, the paper's site has a separate Forum section for those who want to comment anonymously.
Get naked and ride
Move over, Bike to Work Week. Planning is under way for a mass naked bike ride in Madison on Saturday, June 19, as part of a worldwide movement, World Naked Bike Ride. The goal, according to the group's Wikipedia site, is to "protest oil dependency and celebrate the power and individuality of our bodies."
Or as one of the movement's slogans puts it: "Stop indecent exposure to vehicle emissions."
The rides, begun in 2004 and the subject of two documentaries, are open to anyone who wants to celebrate "the glory of naked two-wheel sanity." Participants, some of whom may be on skates, blades and boards, are encouraged to decorate their bikes and paint their bodies.
In Madison, "The exact route is yet to be determined, but will include downtown locations where people are likely to be out and about," says one of the local organizers, who declines to be identified. (Um, aren't you planning to reveal a lot more than that?) "I would guess it will be a loop of no more than five miles. I have been estimating participation to be between a dozen and a hundred."
The start time is listed as 11 a.m.; the starting location is undetermined. Details will be posted here. A planning meeting is set for Sunday, May 2, in the UW Memorial Union Rathskeller, 4 p.m.; clothing is required.
City opens no library before its time
Awhile back, unforeseen delays resulted in the new Sequoya Branch Library not being ready to open when the old one had to close, so the neighborhood lacked a library for a month (Watchdog, 10/16/08). "The whole damn city process is slow," remarked library director Barb Dimick at the time.
Now Dimick is attributing delays in the opening of a new South Madison branch library to, you guessed it, her employer: "The city process always manages to make it take a little longer."
The current 3,300-square-foot South Madison branch is moving into a new 12,000-square-foot facility in the same city-owned building, at 2222 S. Park St., that now houses the Madison Urban League. The new library was once supposed to open in June or July (maybe a few folks even said April or May). Dimick now hopes to open in August or September, but adds that September or October might be more realistic.
And what on earth will happen if, as planned, a new Central Library is built on the site of the current one? Dimick is thrilled that this project will add 25,000 square feet of badly needed space. But she says it will also mean opening a smaller downtown facility and finding space for library operations and materials "for about a year."
Better make that "at least a year," just to be safe.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, in an email from Amsterdam, where he ended up being stranded by ash from last week's volcanic eruption in Iceland: "Unfortunately, I will miss Tuesday's Council meeting, though I may try to tune in via the Internet."