But now, readers of the Colorado Springs Gazette can fight back, in a manner of speaking. A new software upgrade that launched last week features an "ignore user" command that allows a given reader to block comments by individuals who irritate him without doing likewise for anyone else.
Thus far, according to Gazette editor Jeff Thomas, the reaction to this new option has been mixed. "People have said, 'I get where this could be a blessed relief,' but it also creates the ability for folks to hide their eyes from information they don't want to see," he notes. "And some people have lamented that."
The Gazette is owned by Freedom Communications, which is rolling out the commenting software upgrades at all its newspaper properties; they're the latest iteration of the SiteLife application marketed by Pluck.com. Thomas says, "I think we're near the front of the train" when it comes to launching the new features, which also include the ability to create what he calls "nested threaded conversations" -- separate threads that focus on a certain comment rather than the article as a whole.
Still, the "Ignore User" function is getting the most attention. Thomas says he's seen something similar on assorted newsgroup forums, but he doesn't recall stumbling upon it on a newspaper website.
How's it work? Here's his explanation:
"It's built off of your profile," he says. "If you have readers A, B and C looking at Gazette.com story comments and user A decides to ignore user B, then when user B posts a remark, user A will not see it -- but user C will, because user C has not chosen to ignore B." (Thomas's article about the changes offers more details.)
Seems simple, but Thomas acknowledges that "in the culture of online commentary, it's got ripple effects, because it can create some distortions in terms of the continuity of comments."
For his example, Thomas goes back to those three theoretical commenters.
"Let's say user A has blocked user B. Then he starts reading a thread of conversation where user C might respond to something that user B posted -- but user A won't have seen what that was. So if you want to use the 'ignore user' function, you've got to be willing to endure the occasional gap in the tape, if you will. And that can be a downside for some people, because everybody can choose for themselves specific people to ignore, while everyone else can follow right along."
Thomas doubts this will be an impediment for many readers. Although the Gazette didn't do local market research before putting the new software in place, "we have heard from people over the years who may be tremendously aggrieved by what someone else has to say. And from time to time, people would make a plea: 'Could you please make it so we can delete a user or ignore them?' Before, we had to tell them that we didn't have that capability at the moment, but we anticipate that we will someday. And now we can."
Such issues remain a topic of debate within the journalism community as a whole, with a growing number of observers suggesting that the best way to upgrade the tenor of the debate would be to eliminate anonymous commentary and require that readers use their real names. Like many of his peers, Thomas has debated the pros and cons of this approach, and he concedes that "right now, I have a lot of sympathy for that movement.
"Here in Colorado Springs and as a company, we've gone round and round this question," he continues. "Our way of sort of policing the dialogue is to give readers tools to toss the louts out by themselves by a couple of different methods. Even before this new version of SiteLife, any time four people independently clicked on the 'report abuse' link on any particular comment, that comment would be removed from view and would be flagged in the administrative console. That way, we could go in and look for comments pushed over that threshold by readers and make the decision either to remove or restore it. And now, the 'ignore user' function lets individuals at least not have to read stuff they don't want to read from people they can't abide by.
"Whether that's satisfactory, you can argue one way or the other. Some stuff gets posted that's just unhealthy, unhelpful and the kind of thing the Gazette would rather not have people have to endure when they come to our website. But on the other hand, we get a good amount of what I believe is constructive commentary and strong dialogue from people who otherwise wouldn't take the time to do so if they were forced to put their name to it."
This last conclusion is supported in part by an intriguing experiment conducted a year or two back by Gazette columnist Barry Noreen. As Thomas tells it, Noreen invited regular commentators to a series of get-togethers at which they wore name tags identifying them by the names they used when posting. Some of these folks said they'd keep sharing their thoughts if required to use their real names, but plenty of others said the opposite.
For now, then, Thomas says "we've come to a sort of uneasy truce with anonymity" -- and he feels the "ignore user" tool will empower readers to shield themselves from those who get under their skin. But not everyone agrees.
"We've had people say, 'At least under the old system, somebody might be a real knothead, but you could at least expose yourself to all points of view," Thomas says. "So culturally, there could be some narrowing of the dialogue for some people."