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Serraglio

Is Facebook part of a larger problem in the world of online commenting?

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Last month, I wrote about the Arizona Daily Star's switch to a Facebook-only platform for its online comment feature and took the paper to the woodshed for its failure to effectively monitor comments. This generated an interesting discussion on the Weekly's comment thread about anonymity and responsibility in the context of online comments.

Well, let's continue that discussion and drop the other shoe. Not only has Facebook failed to fix the problem, as I predicted—I've already seen naughty words and very personal tit-for-tat squabbles that surely would have been deleted in the past, so apparently the Star has abandoned moderating its comment threads altogether—Facebook is really just part of a larger problem.

Before anyone can say "gotcha," I'll acknowledge that the Weekly's comments also include Facebook. The difference is, we don't mandate that you use Facebook exclusively. You can choose to leave a comment with nothing but an email address to identify you—which is to say, anonymously.

Anonymity has inherent value in public discourse. Reporters sometimes get interesting information and good stories from anonymous tips. There are all sorts of reasons why people choose anonymity, and only one of them involves getting away with being a troll. Whistle-blowers, people in vulnerable demographic groups that could be targeted for harassment (or worse), employees who want to avoid complicating or compromising their job situations and many others have perfectly good reasons to post anonymously. Moreover, their perspectives should not be excluded just because they're not willing to use Facebook.

While the Facebook-only format may succeed in chasing away some trolls, it also has the pernicious effect of limiting the quantity and scope of comments. (Personally, I miss the trolls. In spirited debate, there is learning, as a Weekly reader pointed out in last month's comments.) Radical viewpoints are far less likely to be expressed in the Facebook format, and the overall effect in the case of the Star has been a 90 percent crash in the number of comments. Even hot-button issues like immigration, which used to generate comments by the hundreds, struggle to make it into the dozens now.

So why do publications like it so much? For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, with Facebook they can choose to forgo moderating, which saves them money. But the real plum is the commodifying effect Facebook has on every communication. Facebook can create lots of referrals that greatly increase audience and corresponding advertising revenue. And every single piece of information that passes through Facebook is mined, profiled, categorized and used to make money.

I've seen more than one business-minded analyst crow about the incredible opportunities this provides to shape public opinion and market products. As one put it, "How valuable would it be to chime in to the comment stream amidst the rumors and speculation and correct facts on the fly?" Let me translate that for you: "How valuable would it be to use the branding power of Facebook to attack critical stories and comments and douse their facts and conclusions with your own marketing spin?"

Sadly, in the process of switching over, the Star apparently has consigned years of reader comments to the dustbin of history. Google a story dated prior to the switch—it will show that there are zero comments, even though that story may have had hundreds of comments previously. This is an indefensible destruction of the public record.

Providing a public forum is one of the bedrock principles of journalism. Limiting the voices and perspectives that participate in that forum—whether through Facebook, corporate consolidation of media or other dynamics—is an egregious blow to this fundamental facet of democracy.

And that's the crux of it. Most media aren't about journalism anymore—they're about making money, and if the exigencies of profit demand it, the exclusion of good journalism. In that context, Facelessbook fits perfectly. It's not really about enhanced communication—it's about replacing real communication (you remember, the kind that involves actual faces and voices) with carefully constructed and managed facades.

Taken together, these twin towers of obfuscation are making it increasingly difficult for us 21st-century humans to communicate with each other—exactly the opposite of their stated purposes. When every utterance is modulated through a text, tweet, or tyrannical profit-making empire, not only does our society suffer a breakdown of clear communication, but we as individuals also suffer a profoundly disturbing erosion of our humanity.

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