Sunday, January 26, 2014

Goodbye, Huffington Post

So goodbye, Huffington Post, where my privacy is now gone;
 You can’t get into my Facebook, I’m going back to my blog.
Back to my howling and moaning ‘bout stuff,
writing all about you –
well I’ve finally decided I'll read the news
beyond the Huffington Post…
(to the tune of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road". But you figured that out already.)

     Since about 2008, I’ve been a big fan of the news website The Huffington Post. The writing was usually good, the subject matter expansive, but the best part was always the comment section. Using a pseudonym, I joined a community of (mostly) intelligent people making (mostly) astute and relevant observations. Sure, there were trolls and haters, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Slowly I gathered “fans” for my comments. I became a fan of people like "Coinyer", whose avatar was a photo of Tommy Chong smoking a doobie; "Fogy", who gave the most brilliant defense of marriage equality I’ve heard to this day; and "undecidedaboutPOTUS", dubbed a HuffPost “political pundit” with around 3,000 fans.
     Writing comments under my pseudonym was both liberating and challenging. Expressing myself this way meant I was starting from scratch: no one knew me as Leanne, and no one had any preconceived notions about me. My words were all that mattered, and as a writer – wow –  what a thrill that was. I was building a new identity, one of my own choosing – a keen and clever me, able to craft sentences carefully before putting them out into the online community for examination. Every “faved” comment gave me a rush. Every reply opened a door to conversation. And a new fan – well, sometimes a girl’s just got to have her ego stroked a little, and that did the trick every time.
     HuffPost was more than politics, too. I could join in on topics from “Which Best Part of Love Actually is Actually the Best?” (Colin Firth, duh) to “McDonald’s Drops Heinz Ketchup” (my comment: “Oh my God, it’s 11:15 on a Friday night and I’m reading about ketchup. My life sucks.”) (that one got nine “faves”).
     But last August, the Queen of HP, Arianna Huffington herself, declared that she was so disturbed by the increasing hostility – even threats of physical violence – showing up from “trolls” in comment threads, that the comment policy must be changed. “I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity,” she said (abusing her verb tenses).
     So now, in order to comment, I must link my HP account with my Facebook account, giving them access to my personal information, including friend lists, and allowing my HP comments to become part of my news feed. And since I won’t do that, I can no longer comment. I considered putting together a phony Facebook account, but did you know that FB now requires you to link a unique, verifiable cel phone number to your account?
     See, here’s the deal, HP. My Facebook account is wrapped up in my personal life, and I don’t want you in my personal life. I do not want you to have access to my friends’ info, nor do I want my comments showing up on my FB feed. There are a lot of very nice people on my FB list. A lot of them do not agree with my politics, and that is fine, because I try my hardest to keep my politics off FB. I kinda think of Facebook as a raucous dinner party, where I don’t know all the guests very well – just a few well enough to discuss the hotbed issues – so I keep conversations lighter and more relatable. You know: kids, dogs, food, the weather, Santa Claus, Doctor Who, silly hats. Fun things.  
     “Not hiding behind anonymity” sounds good in theory, but the data says otherwise. In a 2011 study, Disqus determined that over 60% of its commenters used pseudonyms, and concluded that “the most important contributors to online communities are those using pseudonyms.”
     Huffington Post user Fred H. (previously known as “ForrestGrump”) posted this comment:
     Since Dec. 9… there were about 5 million members that left the site. That number includes super users, moderators, members with 10,000 or more fans & friends, intelligent contributors, people who have been here for years with spotless records, people who have a job, people who might be thinking about getting a job one day, Congressional staffers, federal employees, political consultants, political appointees, psychiatrists, actors and other public figures, people who live in oppressive countries that will throw them in prison for their views, people in countries that have banned Facebook, people who don’t own a cell phone with a texting plan, people who don’t wish to give their privacy rights over to Mark Zuckerberg, people who don’t want to let their friends and family in on their political opinions, people who have violent ex-es stalking them and otherwise people who don’t wish to open themselves up to the risk of retaliation for their comments on line by unstable readers.
     So, Arianna, at the end of the business day, you are alienating your most important contributors in order to cut down on the looney tune comments. As they say: the terrorists win.
     And let’s be honest: this is also a financial decision on their part. Ever since AOL bought the Huffington Post in 2011 (for $315 million) they have been waiting for it to turn a profit, and data mining through Facebook equals big money.
     I haven’t quite decided what to do, so my profile is still up. But I won’t be linking my FB account, so I won’t be commenting; and frankly if I’m not commenting, reading the HP is not nearly as appealing. I have been reading comments on this matter from those who’ve stayed. Many of them don’t think it’s a big deal at all. But quite a few have used the comment section of this article to say goodbye. There are several who have tried the “appeal process” to get permission to post anonymously, but it doesn’t sound like that’s going too well. One commenter said that HP even denied that exemption to an elderly woman who doesn’t use Facebook.
     Coinyer is gone, his account deleted. Fogy’s is still listed, although he hasn’t commented since mid-November. And POTUS’ last comment was on December 10, just hours before the new policy went into effect. At least 18 of my own fans have vanished, deleting their accounts. I don’t know how many have just stopped commenting.
     I suppose the discussion could now move into issues of privacy, online ethics and profit margins. For now, though, I really miss talking to nice, smart anonymous people online, even if it’s just about ketchup. And, well, Talking Points Memo and The Nation don’t have articles about ketchup. So I don’t know.
     Maybe I’ll try spending more time with my family.