Starting Aug. 1, participation in Palo Alto Online's popular Town Square discussion forum will be limited to those who register on the site with their name and email address.
The change is an experiment to determine if requiring registration will lead to a more welcoming environment for those interested in respectful discussions of local issues, according to Publisher Bill Johnson.
"In spite of the large numbers of people who enjoy engaging in meaningful discussion on Town Square, we know that there are many others who stay away because they view it as an inhospitable place too often dominated by rude posters who belittle others and their motives," Johnson said. "Town Square wasn't intended as a place exclusively for the thick-skinned. The actions of these problematic posters have demanded increasing amounts of our staff's time to moderate, edit and sometimes delete disrespectful comments that seem intended to antagonize or manipulate public opinion with false or misleading information."
Johnson said that the volume of commenting has soared since the shelter-in-place orders were made in mid-March, fueled by deep divisions over the handling of the pandemic response and, more recently, on protests and advocacy relating to racial injustice and police reform.
"We are constantly evaluating how to make Town Square a safer place for all posters and to keep out those who attack others, make repetitive comments and side-track discussions." Johnson said. "With an expected highly charged election season ahead of us, it seemed like the right time to implement new requirements."
Becoming a registered user requires a person to register their name and email address with Palo Alto Online. Although posters are encouraged to use their name when they post comments, they may choose to use a screen name instead. But the registration requirement will create some accountability and a way for Palo Alto Online moderators to contact the poster.
"There is no perfect way to weed out posters who are hell-bent on being snarky or disrespectful," Johnson said. "But at a time when emotions are high and so much polarization exists in politics, we hope this step will move Town Square closer to a place where constructive dialogue and debate can occur."
Palo Alto Online readers will be asked to help evaluate the registration requirement after the Nov. 3 election.
Registration for Town Square can be accomplished by going to the upper left corner of the Palo Alto Online home page.