Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Could paywalls make people nicer?

The Times paywall may have one interesting consequence. People who've paid may be more willing to post their comments on the site. If they're in the company of other people who have made a similar investment they will assume they're less likely to be the victim of a rhetorical drive-by than they might have been in the past. In the last few years, as newspaper sites have been an open prairie, they've been magnets for people who just wanted to unload a few prejudices before moving on and the flagrant lack of respect for other people's right to a view has made you tremble. There's a difference between a debate among Times readers and a forum in which a lot of people have only turned up to bait the paper's core constituency and to make themselves feel better by simply venting.

I note that The Independent have at the same time taken steps to make it easier for posters to use their Facebook or Twitter names. It will be interesting to see how this works. Our experience on The Word site, which is an oasis of civility in the human zoo, is that people prefer to use screen names because that way they don't draw an employer's attention to the fact that they might be posting on the firm's time. However, whether anonymous or not, the posters do seem to accept that the forum they have is worth having and that they have a shared responsibility to maintain it. Is it possible that something similar could happen on a bigger stage?


  1. wtf who cares what you think yor such an ass lol

  2. Interesting point.
    I think "Dunbar's Number"'s_number comes into play here too. Part of the reason The Word site is civil is because The "Massive" is, I presume, fairly small compared to the number and variety of people involved in those horrible newspaper sites.
    People on the Word site go on about how it's a "broad church". Well it may be in terms of people liking and disliking all sorts of different music, but its a very narrow constituency really, i.e. people attracted enough to the subject matter and personality of a small circulation, relatively highbrow, "rock music and all that" magazine to want to chew the fat with like-minded folk.

  3. How boring, a bunch of people who've paid to read the Times online, commenting in their own little post paywall bubble about their paid-for views.
    The Guardian's free comment is still the best. Yes, people are horrible and mean, but that's an accurate reflection of society - amongst the good there is also a bunch of t**ts who stubbornly reject paths of thought not already programmed into their heads. I enjoy the journalist Tanya Gold and yet she receives TONNES of hateful comments. If you're intellectualy robust enough however you can see through these nasty comments and they actually offer insight into how a journalist makes an impact on the public.

  4. Present company excepted, most people now just shoot from the hip; the days when the writer would fill his fountain pen, gather up his thoughts and contemplate just what he was going to write (and then find a blasted envelope, buy a stamp and trudge to the nearest post box) are long gone. We live in a society where we're all bombarded with comments such as 'I emailed you 5 minutes ago and I've not had a reply.' I loved being able to sleep on it before I got back to someone - as usually the judgement I made after I did was far more balanced than one given after being badgered into it. Maybe that's what Chris, the previous correspondent, should have done. Oh, he was being ironic.

  5. Jack makes a fair point about the contrast between a free-for-all and the apparently cosier alternative which might flourish behind the paywall. But how much is it the job of a newspaper to provide entertainment for people who don't associate with its brand? When the internet arrived newspaper publishers offered their product for free in the belief that the increased exposure was bound to result in more copies sold and on-line advertising revenue that would pay for their investment. Both those beliefs have proved to be ill-founded. Why should any of these papers worry about the views of people who don't wish to contribute?

  6. Anything which raises the tone a notch or two above the sub-human vitriol has got to have some merit.
    I used to think Private Eye's "News from the Messageboards" was a clever and witty spoof until I started delving into YouTube Comments and found it had been virtually cut and paste.

  7. Just one point. Trolling cuts both ways. The Times, Guardian and Telegraph can often host highly controversial (depending on your pov) columns. Readers can hardly be blamed if they respond in kind.

    That said, I'm a big fan of The Telegraph's James Delingpole. Not a universally popular opinion I'll grant you but I'm not bothered. I find him a savagely brilliant (brilliantly savage?) wit - none more so than in his merciless recent headline 'We Must Live More Sustainably, says Jeremy (Seven Homes) Irons'. But his readers' comments often descend into weirdness very quickly.

  8. For students of such things, this is a treasure trove.

  9. Comments boards are a prurient way for us middle class smart arses to laugh at stupid people.

    The first thing I look for in Private Eye is "from the messageboards" my fortnightly fix of sneering humour is not complete without "sword_of_truth" or "justice4maddie". Alternatively I just go and read "Comment is Free" especially after Seamus Milne has whipped his pals up into a frenzy.

  10. You may well be right, David, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing. My concern with paywalls - and their potential to succeed across all news content - is that of cyber-balkanisation.

    In physical formats, I would only ever by the Guardian. But online I will follow links from Twitter, from blogs, from Delicious to articles and columns of a panoply of opinion and political routes. Hell - I've even read stuff from the Daily Mail (I'm not proud of it, but...)

    So, from the web's open, free and linked riches, I get to consume news from a far wider sprawl than I would have previously; likewise, I can read a far wider range of comments from people whom I would likely have avoided in the pub or called a troll on a liberal-leaning message board.

    Comments threads will generally remain nice and polite within a walled garden of like-minded readership. Which has its definite advantages, I'll agree - and it's nice to be able to go to these oasis of sanity and civil debate online. But if all news sources (and other content too) falls behind paywalls - however micro the payments - the chances are I'm not going to shell out for a Telegraph article, when I know there's a Guardian article waiting in my pre-paid iPhone app. Thus the opportunity for discovering information from a different viewpoint (and learning more from the conversation around it - if only about those having the conversation) is lost.

    And I think that's a retrograde step from opportunity for us all - and a tragedy for the open web.

  11. Regarding 'real' vs 'assumed' identity online, on a recent Media Talk - -
    Emily Bell referred to this interesting argument for different public personae, as made on the Crooked Timber blog;