It is a truth universally acknowledged that the commenters on SFGate are almost uniformly awful. Unlike the Appeal’s intelligent, informed and, dare I say, devilishly attractive commenters, the comments that come after any given SFGate article are like a racist, bitter, ignorant, resentful-of-everyone-and-everything car wreck–it hurts you inside to read them but it’s virtually impossible to turn away.
Long-time Chronicle columnist, and short-time San Francisco resident, C.W. Nevius is finally fed up with his readers’ incessant trolling. Nevius is upset over the rash of spiteful comments on a story he wrote about a fundraiser at the outlandish Mission home of former ad-exec Bob Pritikin.
“Many, if not most, of the comments were as scathing, as mean-spirited as possible,” he wrote in his rejoinder to their deluge. “Apparently it was personally offensive to them that this person enjoyed tweaking the usual norms. The assumption was if he’d worn an odd hat on the street, or had a weird haircut, they’d have been just as angry and upset.”
While the house is unrepentantly on the far side of the line separating the simply kitsch from the garish and tacky, it features a mural with Nancy Pelosi straddling an elephant while simultaneously stabbing it in the head, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe atop a giraffe, Harvey Milk waving a rainbow flag and Willie Brown selling his suit while covering his crotch with his trademark fedora. Any red-blooded San Franciscan who can’t enjoy that is probably past the point of being able to enjoy much of anything.
This story isn’t the only recent incident of a Chronicle writer getting fed up with their notoriously testy commenters. Last month, staff writer Heather Knight admitted that “commenters on SFGate are a generally nasty bunch,” after an unexpectedly puerile outpouring of vitriol at an article detailing a statue to be put in the new Transbay Terminal. Nevius was similarly up in arms late last year about the shockingly nasty comments in the wake of a report that former SFPD chief Earl Sanders had suffered a debilitating stroke.
Nevius concludes his anti-troll screed by writing, “if they had any guts they’d sign their name. But they won’t. Someone might confront them. They hide and throw rocks. And there’s a word for people like that. Coward.”
According to Penny Arcade’s “Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory”, a normal person + anonymity + an audience = total f*ckwad. Therefore, it makes sense that forcing people to attach their real names to something they write online would eliminate trolling virtually overnight because then every horrible, xenophobic rant posted to SFGate could traced right back to the seemingly rational human being who originally produced it.
Implementing a system like that is infinitely more difficult than it would appear. The video game company Blizzard attempted to institute a real names-only policy on its Battle.net forums, a place you should never voluntarily admit to visiting, last year but had to backtrack after its community revolted.
Anonymity is a thing almost universally taken for granted online and is responsible for awesome things, like this mind-bogglingly brilliant 4chan thread on the history of science, and terrible things, like nearly every other thread on 4chan.
Embarrassing commenters aren’t unique to SFGate–go check the comments on a Huffington Post article or, better yet, a You Tube video–and you’ll quickly see things that will make even the most hardened online cynic turn beet red. What makes the SFGate comments so striking, is that the types of things said are often way outside the assumed mainstream of acceptable, progressive San Francisco values.
All someone needs to comment at SFGate are a valid email address and an opinion and, despite the complaints of many of the Chronicle’s writers, sources tell the Appeal that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
One of the things likely driving a lot of traffic to SFGate’s site in the first place is the opportunity for a lot of these people to voice their often conservative, politically incorrect opinions in a forum where they wouldn’t necessarily be considered outrÃ©. One can only imagine that that’s a great source of frustration for the Chronicle newsroom, which is operated somewhat separately from SFGate.
Online communities where people use their real names aren’t unheard of. Salon’s The Well has been chugging along for decades, providing intelligent, thought-provoking commentary for its users and it attributes a great deal of its success to the requirement that everyone use their real name.
Heck, I comment on Nevius’s articles quite frequently here at the Appeal, usually with at least some needlessly obnoxious snark attached (the “short-term San Francisco resident” dig for example), and I attach my real name to everything. But those examples are far from the norm.
Our understanding is that comments on Chronicle articles and their implementation are the decision of the company that owns them, the Hearst Corporation, and is managed by SF Gate (which is, again, somewhat separate from the Chronicle). Therefore, it seems like Nevius’ complaints are more a jab at management than at the site’s users, themselves.
After all, if the Hearst Corporation was interested in creating more accountability for their commenters, they could take a page from The Well and create special profiles for commenters willing to attach their real names to what they write.
Outside of influential Chronicle staffers like Nevius lobbying for just that, it looks like the employees of our City’s paper of record are just going to have to grin and bear it. Or they could simply not read comments–that works fine too.