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Cleaning up Town Square

Original post made by Jeb Bing, editor of the Pleasanton Weekly, on Oct 12, 2010

When the Town Square forum rolled out as a part of our updated sites in early 2007, we weren't exactly sure how the community would respond. Designed to be a digital version of a local meeting place for people to discuss issues and comment on stories, it has since grown to become a topic offline as well.

Commenting on news stories and taking part in forums has become the norm for news stories. Yet, those in the newsroom are still trying to figure out how best to manage these online discussions. After all, moderating anonymous posts wasn't part of our journalism school curriculum. When walking around town, I hear both positive and negative feedback from readers about our forum. Everyone seems to enjoy the ability to comment and be part of the news process. Yet, there is some frustration with the mean-spirited and sometimes just plain stupid comments that go on. We hear you.

It's about time that we revisit Town Square to see what's working and what isn't. Moving forward, it is our goal to focus on thoughtful discussion as a part of a valuable online community. Debate is welcome, but not bullying, personal attacks or telling someone to "get a life." We also want to discourage postings that do nothing more than link to stories or blogs; we're looking for discussions, not kindling. Our terms of use have not changed, but we are trying to be more diligent in controlling the quality of postings featured on our sites.

As we work toward making Town Square a place of respectful discussion, we are also looking to you, our readers, to help. We are grateful to those who click "report objectionable content" links when a post or comment has gotten out of hand. By clicking these links, it alerts the editors to the objectionable items and we deal with them as soon as possible.

Our goal isn't to stifle debate and discussion, just to achieve a level of decorum.

Comments (20)

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Posted by Jane
a resident of Downtown
on Oct 12, 2010 at 6:15 am

Jeb,

Having lived in two other communities that have Weekly Forum, I have been discouraged at the nastiness and political discord here on the Pleasanton Weekly.

The very same topics and issues are discussed on several other Weekly forums and there is not a fraction of the anger and hate, the attacks and political fighting on these other township forums.

To me Pleasanton is a charming town and the schools are wonderful, however the political climate and the intensity of some with an all out destructive agenda is just beyond pale.

Most are "educated" here in Pleasanton and take great pride in the influence, or perceived affluence within the community.

People talk with skill and penmanship here, however do not display the same "educated" values and conduct that they would surely display at work, at church or in a college level debate.

This is sad and too bad because I observe that there is a very small core group on these forums and that most of the community tkaes one look at Weekly forums and concludes that civil and meaningful discussion is much better had elsewhere and that time is better spend elsewhere.




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Posted by About Time
a resident of Amador Estates
on Oct 12, 2010 at 8:28 am

Thank you for ending the rude, #@it-disturbing tactics of a few people. Let the intelligent discourse begin. Post must not be anonymous. People need to accountable for their free speech.


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Posted by Donna
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2010 at 9:05 am

There is all this talk about our Community of Character. I just don't see it here in these forums.
Perhaps it the ability to disguise oneself here and speak freely but it isn't civil. It is mean spirited, non informative, filled with venom and vitriol. Thank you Weekly for helping to educate our city to become a true Community of Character.

Pleasantonians should represent themselves with dignity and respect for others. Perhaps a refresher is needed for our Forum users.


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Posted by Jim Ott
a resident of Heritage Valley
on Oct 12, 2010 at 10:31 am

Thank you for addressing the concerns with your blog. When I first became a Pleasanton school board trustee in 2006, I scanned your blog for topics associated with schools. In time, however, I quit reading because the blog offered little civil discourse amid rantings. Fortunately, residents have made time to come to school board meetings or email trustees with ideas and concerns, and I greatly appreciate their insight.

Perhaps the Weekly could host a 90-day trial where bloggers must identify themselves. Just like a physical town square where people stand to speak, we could then see who is speaking. This would certainly result in more thoughtful discourse. And for people with anonymous tips for news stories, why not accept email and protect identities, or simply encourage anonymous letters or phone calls to the Weekly?

The founders of Wikipedia and CiviliNation had this to say in the Wall Street Journal in December 2009: "Individuals appalled at the degeneration of online civility need to speak out, to show this behavior will no longer be tolerated." They also state that "we have an unprecedented opportunity to make the global conversation more reasonable and productive. But we can only do so if we prevent the worst among us from silencing the best among us with hostility and incivility."


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Posted by Stacey
a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Oct 12, 2010 at 10:59 am

Stacey is a registered user.

PW, this is a very old conversation going back to when this site first launched. Let me remind you of why you are having so many administrative/forum moderation issues:

"Residents are the eyes and ears of the newspaper" Jul 11, 2007 Web Link
"Anonymity allows open and diverse dialogue" Nov 15, 2007 Web Link
And here's my personal favorite: "Shall we trample the rose because of the thorns?" Jul 2, 2008 Web Link

Welcome to the Internet age. You're stuck with a web system that may be designed for newspapers, but certainly is not designed for the realities of online forums, especially when you're trying to stick to an ideal about anonymity. It's design does you no favors for helping you to promote favorable and profitable crowdsourcing behavior.

To be sure, I've watched it grow in the right direction. First you added the "is a registered member" notice. Next you added the ability for users to restrict their posts to registered users. Then you were essentially forced to add this CAPTCHA thing at the bottom of posts because you learned that open posting allows in too much spam and other bizarre spam-related test posts (Things like the CAPTCHA actually are annoying to regular users and most sites have done away with it for logged-in users.). What you've done is basically reinvent the wheel. These things you've implemented are exactly what so many other sites in the earlier days of the Internet already went through. Someday you too, like those other sites, will come to the inevitable conclusion; you have to close all posting to only registered users. You control the closed system. It is your responsibility to protect what your users have invested in you by keeping the door on the safe closed. This is not a rose; this is a media delivery platform.

To be sure, other sites do still have content issues despite requiring registration. But the amount of time they need to invest in dealing with it I can only imagine is far less than what you deal with on a site of comparable size because they do not have the headache of dealing with "unverified" posts. The word "unverified" is far more suitable than "anonymous" because those who really want to remain anonymous will still find a way. The vast majority of users, to the contrary, actually want to be given the tools to form community and to nurture their online identities and reputations. Give them those tools.

I'm sure I'll have more words on this later.


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Posted by Scott Kovatch
a resident of Mohr Park
on Oct 12, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Jeb,

I completely agree with Stacey on this. PW absolutely needs to move to a registered-only poster model, with actual names or emails -- not just nicknames. In my job I have to be part of numerous online communities and mailing lists. Rule number one of all of the successful ones I've been a part of is that registration and use of your real name is required.

The web (and more specifically, a forum like Town Square) is not a conversation. In a real conversation, if someone says something incorrect or appropriate, it's corrected by one of the participants immediately, and the mistake is soon forgotten. But in an environment where everything is being recorded and saved for everyone else who arrives late to the conversation, that doesn't happen, and what value there might have been in a discussion is quickly lost by everyone responding to the anonymous rants or accusations of another writer.

If someone in a town square is speaking in a public forum they need to be prepared to defend what they say and put their reputation on the line when they stand up to speak. If we ignore or don't take seriously someone who puts a blanket over their head when they speak up at a public meeting or other forum, why should we grant them the same privileges in an online forum?


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Apperson Ridge
on Oct 12, 2010 at 2:24 pm

@ Scott: And how do you keep peeps from using false identity? Perhaps PW should verify identity by asking for your SS# and credit card info to make sure you are really who you are...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by a reader
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm

A very small, one time registration fee (perhaps $1.00, requiring a credit card) would clean this up. I think a lot of these rants may be coming from adolescents.


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Posted by Really?
a resident of Country Fair
on Oct 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I agree that there is a very small group of core users. If you are on here often enough, you can see it by following speech, spelling and grammatical errors and the patterns. How horrible if we [removed] find out that there are only 20 or 30 total even bothering to look at the forum at all!


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Posted by Free Speech
a resident of Del Prado
on Oct 13, 2010 at 6:46 am

I vote for true free speech. I simply ignore and don't read or completely read posts from people who are outrageous, ignorant, or rude. I don't like these posts, but I dislike stifling free speech more.


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Posted by Gary Alt
a resident of Amador Estates
on Oct 13, 2010 at 8:01 am

Here are my recommendations:

1. PW could publish a list of principles that each user who registers, using their alias or their real name and they must agree to those principles when they register - like accepting a license agreement - but make it plain English and comprehensive, yet succinct. This way people know what is expected to be published.

2. Another way to alleviate this is for the PW to have an ongoing "Rant & Rave" forum. Anyone who wishes to spew forth their biases can post there. If a post is found in another forum, PW has the right to move it to the Rant & Rave Forum. The rest of us need not bother looking in there, but for those prone to do this they are welcome to do so. Just as anyone is welcome to go outside and rant and rave crazy ideas (such as the farmers market) they can go to this forum and post anything they want. By moving posts inappropriate for other forums, PW avoids the accusation of free speech because of deletions.

Personally I doubt the founders of this country would have allowed anyone spewing obscenities, wildly false accusations or being disruptive in any of their productive meetings to go on and on. Free speech has its limits in a public forum such as this.


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Posted by Stacey
a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Oct 13, 2010 at 8:38 am

Stacey is a registered user.

I don't see it as a free speech issue. No one's ability to go set up their own website as a platform for their speech is being taken away by PW. The issue for PW is that they're struggling with how to retain a certain level of editorial control over user-contributed content without creating a ton of routine administrative work for themselves. Remember when they locked down certain threads to registered users only and the response was that "unverified" users just opened a bunch of new threads? That's an example of how the crowd owns editorial control. Now the PW could move threads to a "Rant & Rave" forum as suggested above, but that's really just more work for the few forum moderators that are being taken away from their regular journalism job.


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Posted by Howard Adams Neely
a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Oct 13, 2010 at 9:25 am

Good Morning Jeb,
Keep it simple. Only registered people can comment, so simply register!!!!!!!!!!! If a person is too crude in their comments, simply remove their registration.
Some idividuals have to comment on almost every issue, but you never see these people at City Council Meetings. It might help if you, Jeb, brought up some those basic issues that the City Council needs to hear feedback.
Last night there was a wonderful debate on local issues at City Hall between the candidates, but only a handful of local citizens in the audience, most of which were backers of those candidates.
Your so called writers, here-in, need to step up to the plate and get involved, and not simply vent themselves, to see their names in print.
Most important is to make your vote count in the forthcoming election.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stacey
a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Oct 13, 2010 at 10:33 am

Stacey is a registered user.

Found that articles on this site might be helpful for PW: Web Link Note that they assume that users need to be registered in order to post.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Maria
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2010 at 11:01 am

I do rather like the Rant & Rave forum idea. Granted, it won't stop people from ranting on serious discussions, but it might stop some of the ridiculous conspiracy/ candidate endorsement threads that are currently clogging State and International....


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Emily West
Features Editor
on Oct 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

Emily West is a registered user.

Stacey, I understand your points about required registered users on forums. Right now, we can take it into consideration, but we're working with what we have.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Swami
a resident of Pleasanton Valley
on Oct 17, 2010 at 9:13 am

Hi Emily,
If and when you do consider the registered user idea, please allow anyone to read the town-forum comments, and restrict posting privileges to registered users only. Without reading access to all, the forums will wither out.
Another option may be to add a "agree/diagree" count icon on each post, so rants get negative feedback.
In either case, the technology requirement will be higher, and the simplicity of the current interface will be compromised.
Thanks for the forum.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Highland Oaks
on Oct 22, 2010 at 4:12 pm

"Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff."

Seems my original post was removed. In it I pointed out that the above rendered registration unnecessary and that I was against registration because it been abused in the past when it was used to identify a poster by name.


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Posted by John
a resident of Danbury Park
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:15 pm

whatever you are doing is working. I see far less people viewing and commenting on Pleasanton Weekly so if the plan was to stop dialogue and discussion, it is without a doubt working. I for one like knowing what people really think without forcing them to go underground which the weekly has done.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:29 pm

No 1 - People, go read what is protected by free speech. Seriously, its embarrassing how many people believe anything is protected. I promise you, nothing posted or deleted from this forum falls under the protection.

No 2 - Anonymity is important for honest discussion, it should be retained. What should be monitored/edited are remarks that do not add any value to the discussion (whether in support or opposition too).

My recommendation is to assign a moderator to the forum that can monitor discussion or be flagged of violations. Re-post the discussion criteria for all users. Require a login, but allow users to choose their login name. If a specific user becomes a continuous problem ban that user access by banning their login IP address (or all IP addresses that user logs in under). This is the standard guideline for most online forums I have participated in and works fairly well.


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