Can a 99 Cent Paywall Make Online Debate More Civil?

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Enter the comments section of almost any newspaper, and you begin to believe Hobbes' assertion that absent government, human lives would be "nasty, brutish, and short." Small-mindedness, nastiness, racism, sexism, and a host of other -nesses and -isms run rampant. Comments on news stories are, in a sense, our new civic space, but minus all the social rules that generally govern face-to-face interactions between real human beings. 


An idea that's been gaining traction this year is that it's the anonymity provided by the Internet that has turned many commenters into vicious jerks, so newspapers should require people to use their real names. Certainly Twitter has a much nicer tone, perhaps because all the nasty things people might say would be attached to their name and face. But how do you enforce such a provision? To my knowledge, there haven't been many serious attempts. 

A small paper based in Attleboro, Massachusetts near the state's border with Rhode Island, has an idea. Henceforth, to comment at The Sun Chronicle you'll need to pay 99 cents... with a credit card. And the name on your comments will be the name on your card. 

Geoff reminds me in the comments that the paywall extends and toughens what commenting systems like Disqus (used here) already do in connecting your real and online identities.

The paper's publisher told The Guardian that he hopes the new system will "eliminate past excesses that included blatant disregard for our appropriateness guidelines, blind accusations and unsubstantiated allegations." On the positive side of the ledger, maybe it will also encourage people who were scared off by the vitriol of online debate to get involved. Certainly, this is one experiment to keep an eye on.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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