Utility at What Cost?

Dan Gillmor is critical of the NYTimes decision to require Facebook login for verified identity, which brings with it greater access to services in their online offerings.

News organizations that use Facebook for login to comments and other features are unbelievably short-sighted. Which, of course, is absolutely nothing new.

Normally I would be at the front of the line when it comes to criticizing the NYTimes but in this case I think their decision is calculated and reasonable. What they are getting is a real name identity system without the substantial obstacles that would otherwise not be overcome… people won’t verify their identity en masse for websites but for reasons I cannot explain have few reservations about doing so when the convenience of Facebook’s identity system is presented to them.

Identity is an issue that enables and infects the web, we benefit from having relative anonymity yet few people would suggest that anonymity improves the quality of discourse online. Media site commenting systems reveal this to an absurd extreme… the things people say to each other online would not remotely be considered in the course of actual conversation in the physical world. Anonymity brings out the worst in people but that fact alone is not a reason to ban it from the web, which would be impractical to say the least.

Media sites are not public utilities, they are hosted conversations that have real cost as well as opportunity costs associated with them for the companies that host them. If the NYTimes decides that linking up with Facebook is a tradeoff that brings an increase in the quality of discourse while trading off information about people to Facebook then that is their choice and their subscribers, real or in the abstract, will take the offer or reject it like they have with other initiatives from the Grey Lady (e.g. TimesSelect).

If your issue is focused on Facebook and the increasing power that they are accumulating, then that is a different issue not related to what the NYTimes does with them or not.

Ideally the NYTimes would present multiple choices for identity to be connected to their online profiles, and give their readers the opportunity to opt-out of features like recommendations but truthfully I don’t know enough about what they are doing or not doing in this regard to comment. What I do like about their strategy is that they are giving you the choice to not use Facebook and in exchange for using Facebook they are increasing your access to features that you may find valuable, in other words they are giving you something in exchange for whatever you are giving Facebook… and while Gillmor and others will criticize this as having nothing in it for the NYTimes the fact remains that the NYTimes has a strategic interest in improving the quality of comments attached to content and that isn’t trivial.

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