Monday, December 2, 2013

User Generated Content: The Woes and Pros

Erica Mowry 

With the emergence of social media has come a newly charged area for journalists to contend with within the context of the online arena: user-generated content, specifically comments.

User-generated content can be viewed as a double-edged sword for journalists as it poses both pros and cons. While reading the articles for today one of the predominant themes that stuck out to me was the concept of anonymity with user comments.

It seems as though many audience members soliciting news media websites and posting anonymous feedback have resulted in a hotbed for malicious comments. It can be surmised that many of these comments seem to be rooted in audience members relying on anonymity to say whatever they want without fear of their physical or actual person being linked to their words.

What happens, though, when the threat of removing anonymity from these comments is a looming possibility?

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Possible Reasons For the Switch

Tim Ebner’s articleIs Facebook the Solution to the Obnoxious Comments Plague,” outlines some of the viewpoints related to USA Today’s decision to “implement a new system requiring everyone who wants to comment on its online stories to do so via Facebook,” yielding “a less than friendly reaction from readers,” (Ebner).

Ebner notes that for years, “online readers have been able to post their views while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity” (Ebner). Accompanying these anonymous reader reactions was a lot of obscene, racist and sexist feedback. Consequently it led some news organizations, like USA Today, to reexamine how they handle responses to their content.

Arguably, this move can be seen as illustrating the media’s desire for control and filtering out select comments. The parent company for the organization, Gannett, attributes the decision to make the switch to a new format as a way to “provide a welcoming environment that encourages high-quality and relevant contributions,” according to a Gannett spokesperson (Ebner). 


Looking at some of the repercussions of switching to a Facebook-only system to garner feedback, we see that those who are not a part of this particular social networking site are excluded, as touched on by Emily Bell, (Ebner). The response to this from USA Today’s reader advocacy editor Desair Brown is that they have seen a decline in the conversation and they want to “elevate the discussion” around their content and avoid anonymous commentating and “enhance conversation all together” (Ebner). 

Arguably, switching to Facebook-only means of commenting on stories is not a foolproof way to filter out negative comments. Ebner cites Mandy Jenkins of The Huffington Post who outlines some of the drawbacks to this new system of commenting on her personal site.

She also notes a drop in comment activity and also brings up the point that ghost accounts from Facebook users can still “spew just as much hate speech as anonymous commenters” (Ebner). This point that Jenkins makes illustrates that media outlets utilizing this system will still have to be diligent with filtering out comments.  

In addition to the aforementioned consequences, there is also a drop in the number of comments accompanying online news articles. And with this drop in comments it begs the question of how users may be more inclined to self-police themselves when contributing feedback.

For example, Jenkins makes the point that “the types of comments that editors want, such as reaction and personal experiences, are not as likely to be posted because readers may fear that their privacy is at risk” (Ebner). However, there is the benefit of receiving more direct referrals to the website if Facebook users link their comments to a personal profile page, according to Julia Thompson (Ebner). 

Ultimately, we can view this change occurring on the Internet front as another new wave being made with online journalism. There are arguably clearly marked benefits and drawbacks to implementing a Facebook-only comment system, but, as a whole, it illustrates a shift in how user-generated content, specifically feedback, is garnered. This change also has the potential to shift how readers think about the content they’re consuming and how they pick and choose how and when to express their personal opinions.  

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