By Tim Whyte
Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, before we all knew about the internet, and social media was just a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, there was Tell It to The Signal.
It was the brainchild of a former Signal publisher: We set up a dedicated phone line, and connected it to an answering machine. (Kids, ask your parents what an “answering machine” was.)
We invited local residents to call in on the phone line, and leave a recorded message about whatever they wanted to get off their chest. We asked them to leave their name and phone number, but that was really kind of pointless because we were not printing their names, much less their phone numbers, and we very rarely called them back.
We had an editorial assistant at the time — a full-time person — who basically spent half her day transcribing those answering machine recordings and the other half typing up letters to the editor that came in by mail and fax. (Kids, ask your parents what a “fax” was.)
That job, by the way, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s obsolete. I’m reminded of it every three or four weeks when someone actually mails in a hard copy of a letter to the editor and I have to find someone to type it up.
Anyway, we’d edit those transcribed phone messages, and toss out the most objectionable stuff — things that were in bad taste or might get us sued — and then we’d publish those comments in the newspaper.
Boy, did people get riled up about some of the comments we published, especially since they were published without the caller’s name.
Truth be told, I never liked the anonymity of it all. I’m a First Amendment advocate and I think everyone should have a chance to be heard, but I also think it’s cowardly to do so anonymously, firing from the bushes and hiding rather than standing up and being accountable for what you’ve said.
Later, when the internet became more than just a passing fad, we moved Tell It to The Signal — which one of our columnists had dubbed “TITTS” — to our website.
That was the beginning of my own personal nightmare.
We didn’t exactly invent the online bulletin board, but that’s what it was. And, we persisted in allowing people to post their comments anonymously.
It became a giant time suck.
Instead of a full-time person transcribing phone messages and typing letters to the editor, we now had several staffers — including me — trying in vain to keep up with Tell-It and remove all the objectionable material people tend to post online when they are unaccountable.
Prison rules commentary, basically.
Potentially libelous comments. Cheesy plugs for their own businesses so they could avoid buying advertising. Vulgarity. Potty humor. You name it.
It was even worse than social media. At least on social media, for the most part, people are who they say they are.
We spent way too many hours managing Tell It to The Signal. Sometime after I left the paper in 2007, the paper got rid of it.
Don’t get me wrong. Tell-It had its up sides. It provided an easy way for people to connect to The Signal. It provided lots of people an opportunity to have their voices heard. It provided a lot of very interesting content. It was, if nothing else, a super-entertaining read.
But man, that anonymity, and the nastiness that emerged — those things bugged me.
Fast forward to 2019 and I have spent a good chunk of this week trying to learn how to better manage the comments function on our website.
It differs from Tell-It in a few key ways, but also has some key similarities. One difference: You don’t go to one place, as you did with Tell-It, and find all of the comments on various topics in one place.
Rather, the comments, which are managed through a program called Disqus, appear beneath each online story we publish. They post in real time, so they’re not pre-screened by a human being, but the system automatically blocks posts that include a set of specified key words and their variants, so there’s little risk of Actual Profanity finding its way into publication.
But as I’ve seen this week, people are creative. They can find ways around that.
In fact, we had to delete several posts from, of all things, the comments section below a story about the ribbon cutting for the city’s new Pace rent-a-bike program.
Innocuous story, right?
Yeah, you’d think so. But somehow those comments had devolved into name-calling and one reader giving another one some very specific instructions on a sexual act they should go perform on themselves.
Then we have the anonymity rearing its ugly head. Except now, unlike the Tell It to The Signal era, we at least aspire to have some standards when it comes to anonymous posts, or people using fake names.
Our policy is this: You can post on the site, but we ask that you follow basic rules of decorum — no profanity, no vulgarity, no libelous material, no name-calling — AND, use your real first and last name. You can disagree with us if you like, you can criticize our coverage or our columns and editorials, but at least do so using your real name. No shooting from the bushes.
It’s hard to police it, though. People get creative on that front, too. One person — pretty sure I know who he is — used the pseudonym “Will Randolph,” an apparent nod to a certain historic newspaper magnate.
Blocked. Until he agrees to use his real name. Likewise with several other users who were posting under fake names — from both sides of the political aisle, by the way.
So, do I miss Tell It to The Signal? Nah. What we have now — even as we attempt to apply some standards of conduct and decorum — is waaaaaay too similar to TITTS for me to miss it.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On twitter: @TimWhyte.