With ID Comes Online Civility

A while back I accepted a self-identified conservative's request to be my "friend" on Facebook. My goal with Facebook is to coax out a wide range of views in discussions to illustrate how we humans have more in common than we may want to think.

To jump-start conversations, I post links to stories, columns and videos, and sometimes I pose questions about particular issues. Recently I started posting the name, rank and hometown of every American killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I ask only that everyone engage respectfully. The discussions are lively and long, and it's heartening to watch a network of strangers grow into a community of neighbors regardless of what they do for a living or where they call home.

Many express a relief to learn that civil - and informed - discourse is still possible in this country. As one mother posted last week, "I haven't been this tuned into current events since college."

For a while, the conservative I mentioned earlier was a spirited but courteous dissenter. In June, he started to ramp up the rhetoric - and the heat. Some reprimanded him for hurling insults. When I asked him to keep a civil tongue, he backed down and posted an apology.

But there was something about his phrasing once he decided to attack that sounded familiar. I went to The Plain Dealer's Web site, Cleveland.com, where, like most newspapers, we allow anonymous comments that often churn into a vitriolic brew. Sure enough, I spotted identical phrasing, augmented with personal attacks that he knew would have gotten him kicked off my Facebook page.

I sent one of the more offensive posts to him in an e-mail and asked whether it was his. He acknowledged that it was. When he didn't apologize, I decided our Facebook friendship was over.

He behaved so differently when his picture and his name were attached to his opinions on Facebook. I have since added hundreds more "friends" to Facebook, and similar circumstances have unfolded only a handful of times. We get fired up, but we seldom lose sight of our mutual humanity.

Some in the newspaper industry insist we have to allow anonymous comments to generate traffic on our Web sites, which in turn determines what we can charge for online ads. They fear that we'd lose online readership if we required identities with comments. Discussion, they fear, would evaporate.

Anonymity on the Web offends most journalists I know, and not just because their own names go on everything they write. It breaks every rule newspapers have enforced for decades in letters to the editor, which require both a name and a city of residence.

Anonymous comments also alienate many thoughtful readers, who constitute the majority of people who read newspapers. When readers complain to me about ugly comments, I urge them to weigh in, but most balk. It's like trying to persuade your friends to visit a great tavern in a bad neighborhood; they want nothing to do with that side of town.

An editor of another online news site in Cleveland told me his site screens comments before they're posted, in part because he believes the caliber of conversation affects the enthusiasm of advertisers.

"You can't monetize jerks," he said.

My concern is that readers will continue to despair that the worst anonymous comments represent a growing crowd in America. Yet reader response via e-mail and voice mail - and my daily interactions with people on Facebook and around the country - assures me that this is not true.

Most Americans believe civility matters.

They also believe it comes with a name.

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