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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 outré. 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.

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  • Greg Dewar

    Jinx!

    I literally just posted a piece about the same issue! Great minds think alike and also LOL at the TROLLs

    http://www.gregdewar.com/2011/04/oh_the_irony_sfgate_writer_dec.html

  • Aaron Sankin

    I dig the post. IMHO Reddit likely has the best commenters on the interwebs. Things there have a tendency to spiral off on tangents about everything from Star Wars to Return of the Jedi, but I’ve legit seen people openly change their minds because someone made a well-considered, persuasive argument. Even there it only happens once in a blue moon, but it happens. I can virtually guarantee that in none of those cases was either party a bitter retiree from Arizona typing in all caps about Obama’s birth certificate or the how the “sheeple” need to rise up and return the United States to the gold standard.

  • frenchjr25

    The truth is that most of these people don’t believe a word of what they are writing. They just enjoy being jerks. CNN & HLN gets horrible comments on their anchors Facebook pages all the time.

    There is no accountability for nasty people these days. It is terrible that some people think these rants are acceptable in our society. I wonder how many of those nasty commentators are actually the same person with multiple accounts.

  • Jackson West

    I, for one, will voluntarily admit to having visited the Battle.net forums. Also? Everyone here is a communist gay who’s going to hell.

  • Ted King

    Aren’t all of the SFGate commenters Fox addled 13 year olds? I just assumed that they find SFGate a convenient place to urinate on San Francisco.

    It’s hilarious they have directed their streams at C.W. Nevius. No problem here that can’t be fixed with a paywall.

  • renegade

    Comments drive hits/revenue for SFGate. Perhaps other companies operate in a similar manner. Will “real” names help? Just make up a name such as Joey Wombatus.

    I think comments contribute to global incivility. We all used to just slash on our s.o. when we were pissed. Now we rip in the forums and assimilate that ‘tude everywhere: at work, in the bars, at gun shows.

  • tomprete

    Wait, there are still people who read the comments on SFGate? P.S.: You can tell this is my real name and my real face. If I were going to choose fakes, would I choose these?

  • Rick

    SFGate does seem to bring vitriolic people out of the woodwork, but the politics of insults and personal destruction aren’t unique to SFGate at all.

    Last year’s debate over Muni got way out of hand on SFGate – but also spilled onto Twitter and Facebook. I had people who I’ve still yet to meet slinging insults right and left because it was their way without room for civil, constructive discussion.

  • RussianHillDweller

    Pritkin thought this was rough? The comments on Nevius’s blog post about his house were NOTHING compared to some of the things I’ve read on sfgate.

    One thing that would drastically improve the user experience on sfgate.com, relative to its comments section, would be the ability – analogous to craigslist – for me to filter out all of the non-San Francisco commenters. (with the option to allow commenters from Marin and Oakland perhaps) While there are plenty of wingnuts here in town, I have no interest in the opinion of anyone from Walnut Creek or Tracy. While I certainly believe they’re entitled to theirs, I would enjoy the comments section so much more if I didn’t have to read them.

  • DT

    Agree with RussianHillDweller.

    I suspect a good bit of traffic at sfgate comes from public terminals at the SF Public Library. Some traffic analysis would be revealing.

    Believe another segment posting is lonely suburban curmudgeons.

    The censorship of sfgate posts is quite arbitrary, Anything said against a political sacred cow or special interest group presently granted immunity from Federal, State or Local Laws while flagrantly violating them is quietly removed.

    Those paid to post in favor of Prop 8 were never managed well by the editors.

    Most of the time I set sfgate comments to most popular to reduce reading time.

  • freddybear

    I’m one liberal who’s frequently astounded and embarrassed by the vitriol penned by fellow liberals on SFGate.

    Just today I saw an article on smoking. The general consensus among the liberals seemed to be that anyone who smokes should be rounded up and shipped off to a concentration camp and shown no mercy. The most memorable comment was “whenever I’m driving on the freeway and someone is smoking in the car in front of me, I must roll up my windows and turn off the vent until I can move to another lane because I don’t want that guy’s smoke coming into my space and making me sick.” Really? A guy smoking in a car 100 feet in front of you going 70 miles per hour is going to give you cancer? Really? Isn’t that just a little over the top?

    When Jerry Falwell died, the hateful comments made my skin crawl. Hey, I disliked him as much as the next guy. But he’s dead. Doesn’t someone’s death call for a little civility regardless of what you may have thought of the guy personally?

    I know I’m only picking on the liberals when there are just as many equally vile comments from the conservative wing. But I hold liberals to a higher standard. And I expect hateful comments from the right. They just roll off the back. Maybe that’s my own prejudice at work.

    One of the favorite talking points of the right is that liberals are the true haters and intolerant ones when it comes to an opinion with which they don’t agree. Reading the comments from liberals on SFGate makes me think maybe they’re right.

  • Angie Coiro

    Two venues I frequent insist on real names: the Well, as mentioned in the article; and the San Jose Merc-News website. Interestingly, the Well’s policy fosters a sense of shared community and sometimes very deep discussion, whereas at the Merc, commentary has all but died.

    Big difference is that the Merc uses Facebook as its sign-in mechanism. Feh. Kills my own interest all but dead. I’m happy to attach my name to my comments. I despise Facebook.

    But I suspect the larger issue is that most commenters are in it for the anonymous, hit-n-run aspect of the newspaper sites. They’re not there for honest give and take. On the Well, that’s the whole point. On the wider internet, it’s an anomaly. So taking away the anonymity doesn’t just change the rules of the game; it eliminates the game all together, as it’s evolved to this point.

    No big loss, says I. There’s no shortage of internet mud pits to wallow in, and it adds nothing positive to a newspaper site.

  • allysoneb

    I actually posted a comment on Nevius’s story about comments creating revenue for Hearst, and a SFGate admin replied, alleging that clicks from comments only make up 2-3% of the site’s traffic. Anyone else think that’s bs?

  • cv

    I do.

    I basically posited the same thing and no admin replied to me. It’s the second most popular comment on that blog entry (52 thumbs up, 6 thumbs down). Perhaps it’s sheer coincidence, but shortly after I posted my comment, all mentions of the Nevius blog entry were removed from the SFGate.com front page.

    Admittedly, I insinuated that anyone who uses their real identity on the Internet has a much higher risk of privacy breaches. Perhaps by invoking the word “Epsilon” to illustrate my point rendered my stance unassailable. I don’t know how an SFGate admin would reply to that since they didn’t.

    If comment-related traffic was that minimal, I doubt that they would spend time/money hunting down provocative quips to list in their Reader Views section. My guess is that comment-related traffic is substantial, which allows for the existence of services like Disqus. Heck, there are entire, highly profitable websites based on news commentary (Fark, Slashdot, Reddit, etc.).

    Also, they could mandate an obligatory Facebook Connect login which would probably chase away the vast majority of participants, but they have not. If I recall correctly, SFGate has dabbled with alternate login/forum management systems, but has basically kept their system the same. There’s a strong possibility that they saw pageviews drop off on articles that had more strict commenting login policies.

  • Josh

    My hope is SFGate and Examiner.com will choose to go behind a pay wall. This would also allow them to implement the mix of anonymous and identified commentaries.

    Really I hope they do it, because I think it’s a failed experiment, and the more money spend and then have to sell? The sooner the better: their editorial legend is far too right wing to be the major paper about town. I’m hopeful that BayCitizen has the initial funding to get an AP feed, and do more write-ups, taking from that feed. And a site redesign, but I think that has to come after more people need to be there; right now SFGate is the place because they mix the local with the AP feed; they’re a hub.

    I think the funny part is; anonymity, is what people will pay for. If I could *pay* to be sure that a company had good retention policies for my data (threw it away) so I could be secure that my opinions wouldn’t turn into being tracked down; that’s a feature in this day and age of privacy-gone-by-the-wayside, worth spending money on. Sure, the company might be able to link me via my credit card, at the moment of purchase, but once they cash that ‘check’, then there’s no reason to keep my personal data. Worried I might do something wrong and the police might need to get involved? (Which happens, for me, not at all, for an organization, oh-so-rarely) There’ll be that moment, when someone has to renew their subscription. But I want the organization to resist a blanket fishing expedition by abusive authorities, and for that; one could pay even more.

    As for complaints against ‘trolls’, that’s just the nature of the beast they’ve created. A good columnist could even take to taunting the trolls, to drive up traffic, to turn it into a discussion and teaching lesson.

  • netzard

    I rarely read comments on SFGate anymore as the quality of discourse is so incredibly base and childish. Most of the comments have almost nothing to do with the article they are commenting about. Its all “wacky SF” BS. I have a good friend however, who is addicted to reading and posting on the SF Gate comments board, and seems to feel he is a one-man crusade against willful ignorance. I get regular updates from him as to what the nut-jobs on SFGate are saying. Their forums would improve if SFGate bothered to police them for hostility, but they do not. Its obvious from reading them that no-one at SFGate cares if their boards descend into pointless name-calling.

  • Donna

    It does get really bad, especially the hate speech.
    But while using real names might help with that, it will also prevent a lot of people from being honest about some topics or even posting at all. I don’t actually want anyone with a computer to be able to see what I write about for some sensitive issues. Some of us talk to strangers because we can’t say the same things to the people we know personally.

    I used to post on IMDB a lot. And I thought they had a very good system in which they just quickly deleted offensive posts, and deleted accounts after multiple violations. I think heavy moderating would be better than having to give up anonymity Also, if there is a financial problem manning the moderation, you can enlist people with good records and who are on a lot to act as moderators. There are people will do it for free or very little pay.