When Philly.com announced plans to change its comments policy last month, they accomplished one thing: they received lots of comments.
Last month, the site Philly.com, home of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, announced a plan to change the site’s comments. It received hundreds of comments in response.
The biggest change seems to be making people click a link to decide whether they want to even read comments. A smaller change (which isn’t really a change at all) involves being a bit more intentional about reading the existing comment policy.
But the post started with a post of staffers reading actual comments from readers directed at them, much the way celebrities are invited to do on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Erica Palan, audience engagement manager for Philly.com, said they recorded the video a while back but held it:
It felt wrong to acknowledge the problem without providing any solutions, so we held it until we had something to say.
The change that allows comments to continue comes at a time when some journalists out there might well be pleased to see them go away forever, since many of the comments — particularly where anonymity is allowed — run the gamut from rude to crude to profane.
At the moment, the link to sound off on the comment policy change seems to have disappeared. This may be because there’s a time limit — 30 days, maybe? — during which comments are allowed before they’re closed.
I glanced at a few of the comments when the link was active and I saw typical remarks whenever such a change is initiated. The majority of them either claimed that the “real” reason for the change was to allow the paper to just remove comments that show a dissenting opinion, or chastised the paper for trying to remove people’s First Amendment right to Free Speech.
But if the paper were truly interested in wiping clean any comment that the media organization didn’t agree with, they’d hardly need to update some comment policy to do so; they could just go in and remove them. After all, it’s their space within cyberspace, so they hardly need anyone else’s permission to do what they want on their site, even if it might harm their image to do so.
That brings us to the second explanation. There’s an apparent belief that the doctrine of free speech applies universally and gives people the right to say (or do) anything they like anywhere they like.
That’s not how it works.
If it’s your website, you set the rules. This applies for the angry commenters who want to have their say: they can create their own website and decide what their comment policy — what will and won’t be tolerated — will be.
And if a website chooses to use a third-party comment service, like Facebook comments, for example, people who use it must follow two sets of guidelines: the site’s and Facebook’s (or whatever the third party is).
Facebook has its own set of “Community Guidelines,” and if you have a Facebook account, you already agreed to follow those guidelines.
Remember that little “I agree to the terms…” checkbox you clicked without bothering to read the hyperlinked policy that explained exactly what it was you were actually agreeing to? Yeah, it’s in there.
You can’t create your Facebook account without agreeing to those terms.
Free Speech may give you the right to have your say in public under certain conditions.
But it’s far from a universal freedom to behave any way you wish in any place, online or in real life. that you wish.