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Does allowing anonymous comments help or hinder?
June 20, 2011 5:56 PM   Subscribe

GigaOM writer: "Anonymity has real value, both in comments and elsewhere." In the wake of the faux lesbian Damascus blogger, the question over whether or not to allow anonymous comments is being raised again. Some claim anonymous comments allow for dissent and are essential to democracy. Other claim that that anonymous comments lead to harsher, uncivil conversation that serves nobody.

Presenting the case for anonymous comments:
"What we should all fear is what too many in power want to see: the end of anonymity entirely. Governments, in particular, absolutely loathe the idea that people can speak without being identified… I fear there will soon be widespread laws disallowing anonymous speech, even in America." - Online journalism pundit Dan Gillmor

Presenting the case against anonymous comments:
Many comment sections are “an exercise in faux democracy” and that there would be “more honest, kinder, civil exchanges if people used their real names.” - Alicia Shepard, former ombudsman for National Public Radio

But is the solution much simpler than we all realize?
"...and one of the main reasons media sites have such terrible comments is that their writers rarely if ever engage with readers." - Matthew Ingram (the GigaOM post author)
posted by zooropa (36 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Anonymous commenting has value. Reading them, on the other hand, seems worthless.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:59 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have read more on this whole debate than I ever cared to and in spite of people presenting very intelligent, well thought out, nuanced arguments, I still don't care. Seriously. And i don't have to.

I mean, until some government outlaws online anonymity. Then it's fucking on.
posted by GuyZero at 6:04 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


What kind of total brain dead idiot thinks that anonymous commenters are rude?
posted by Winnemac at 6:05 PM on June 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


I would love to know how anyone intends to pass (let alone enforce) a law against anonymous speech.

I personally think there are plenty of compelling reasons to own what you say online (or anywhere else for that matter), but I also appreciate the needs of others to do otherwise, especially in places where what you say could get you killed or in situations where an honest discussion of sensitive issues requires a temporary veil.
posted by jquinby at 6:07 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think, at least for people around my age (<30) incivility in anonymous comments is actually becoming less of a problem.

Not in the sense that incivility is going away (it's not), not in the sense that people think incivility is great and okay.

It's just that it's so expected and banal now. It's not a SHOCK anymore. It doesn't sting, like the first time you get on the internet at the age of 12 and share something or want to talk about something you care about and people are nasty, or lullzy.

Nastiness is just easier to ignore as just background noise. Trolling is easier to ignore. You can still talk about what you want to talk about, around it. You can still have the conversations you want to have. That's how it seems to me. I think people who grew up before the age of the internet will never really get fully accustomed to it in the same way.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:10 PM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


Presenting the case against anonymous comments:

Facebook.

*stifles yawn*
posted by jason's_planet at 6:13 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would hate to lose the ability to be anonymous. But I would hate even more if the authoritative source of identity on the internet were to be Facebook.
posted by Slothrup at 6:15 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Hasn't the Supreme Court already said that anonymity is a fundamental component of free speech?

Or was that just a beautiful dream I had?
posted by Trurl at 6:21 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ironically the whole Amina Arraf thing just serves to show that at least right now there's not really a good mechanism to discern actual real people online from fake personas online. Even if you require a "real name" or Facebook account before someone posts online, it's trivially easy to create a fake name or account.

And the whole theory that the level of discourse on the Internet is related to anonymity is way overblown in my opinion. Just spend some time reading the Usenet archives to see how many people using their real names would get into just as nasty flamewars as anyone does today. People point at YouTube comments and act as if those people would never say those things in real life, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that the average YouTube commenter is about 12 years old.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:22 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Full disclosure - I absolutely, unwaveringly support anonymity online - And to a degree, I would extend that to the "real" world.

That said, I find it somewhat interesting how various sites have gone about banning "anonymous" comments. They almost all have the same pathological failure to grasp the situation - They require "logging in" - Some with accounts made local to their own site, and some via the likes of OpenID or Disqus.

Except, you can make completely anonymous accounts at all of the above (well, the latter two for certain, and I have yet to see a non pay-to-register site that breaks anonymity)!

Actually, on that last point, MeFi has a rather unique edge in that (most) users needed to pony up real live contact info in the form of a credit card in order to register here. Elsewhere on the internet, that simply does not happen.

/ and even MeFi's approach, you can easily preserve your anonymity by using an anonymous prepaid Visa gift card... Though even paranoid ol' pla didn't go that far. ;)
posted by pla at 6:24 PM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]




I'm all for active communities, and active communities with anonymous users. But to be honest, I think most websites would be improved by having no "comments" at all. Not every website or blog is improved by providing a conversation and publishing platform for the users of that website.
posted by kcalder at 6:28 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


"the faux lesbian Damascus blogger" was not anonymous; he/she was pseudonymous. Which SHOULD be a whole different issue.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:32 PM on June 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


Other claim that that anonymous comments lead to harsher, uncivil conversation

People need to harden the fuck up.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." Lost count how many times an adult quoted that to me when I was little. What they forgot to tell me is that rule gets thrown in the garbage once you turn 21.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:43 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


ps: Ashley801 absolutely nails it.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:48 PM on June 20, 2011


What does it actually mean to have your comments tied to your "real" name? The only effect I can see is that you have no ability to compartmentalise your interactions. It forces you to bow to the blandest common denominator of your associations. I don't like to swear in front of some people, but I don't want every sentence I say to be bounded by that.

I think mefi is a fantastic example of how to do this well. With a persistent profile, you're aware that each comment is connected to the past and future of it. Sure, you can make sock puppets and throw out some standalone unpleasantness, but effective moderation and the entry fee discourage that.
posted by lucidium at 6:52 PM on June 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


^^ I'm guessing none of these are your real names ^^
posted by JJ86 at 7:06 PM on June 20, 2011


Pseudonomy is just having another name. Obscurantism is having several.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:55 PM on June 20, 2011


Anonymous commenting has value. Reading them, on the other hand, seems worthless.

Yes, because who would ever want to read the pseudonymous rantings of a teenager?
posted by fings at 7:56 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


But is the solution much simpler than we all realize?
"...and one of the main reasons media sites have such terrible comments is that their writers rarely if ever engage with readers." - Matthew Ingram (the GigaOM post author)


This is true. Most Australian journalists and commentators ignore the comments to their articles completely, with the result that their comment sections are absolute cesspools of idiocy, but when the writers engage with the commenters and do a bit of judicious moderating they end up with vibrant communities of commenters that are usually non-moronic and sometimes almost worth reading. George Megalogenis and Possum Comitatus are two who come to mind.

The problem isn't anonymity, or pseudonymity (the GigaOM post fails by not noticing that these are not the same; the NPR post is about pseudonymity and the Guardian article discusses both). It's lack of intelligent moderation or, for sites like NPR which apparently gets 3,000 comments a day, lack of an intelligent moderation system. Hell, without moderator involvement Metafilter would be a shitpile by now.

As for requiring people to put their real names to their comments - well, it would be good way of making sure that the only people who comment are cranky retirees, loudmouthed angry misfits and teenagers who haven't learned the value of a clean google name search. I suppose people with really common names might be able to participate as well, but I know that if my comments on Metafilter and a couple of other places were expressly tied to my (unique, easily searchable) name I'd stop writing them at all.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:16 PM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


or in situations where an honest discussion of sensitive issues requires a temporary veil.

Such as discussing your poop-wiping preferences. Now that's a thread where you really never want to know the real names of anyone in the discussion.
posted by emjaybee at 8:18 PM on June 20, 2011


I value anonymity for some damn good reasons.
Dure zometimes stuff happens. The only people fooled by 'Gay Girl in Baghdad' had no long-term experience of Iraq, Arabs, or much prolonged, direct exposure to the
war.
I was not fooled. It was like the 8 year old junkie story some cesta ago.
I have a blog and I moderate it. I won't put in any trolls or genocide deniers. Not that many people read it or comment. Those who do comment are very measured. I do ask people to have a name. It need NOT be their real name, just some sort of name so I am not addressing them as 'Hey You!'
The big problem with Facebook is that it blurs the work life- personal life divide too much. I wishI coulddrag my family over to Diaspora.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:50 PM on June 20, 2011


Not in the sense that incivility is going away (it's not), not in the sense that people think incivility is great and okay.

It's just that it's so expected and banal now. It's not a SHOCK anymore. It doesn't sting, like the first time you get on the internet at the age of 12 and share something or want to talk about something you care about and people are nasty, or lullzy.

Nastiness is just easier to ignore as just background noise. Trolling is easier to ignore. You can still talk about what you want to talk about, around it. You can still have the conversations you want to have. That's how it seems to me. I think people who grew up before the age of the internet will never really get fully accustomed to it in the same way.


You've clearly lost some perspective. I suspect that time spent on Metafilter has given you rose-colored glasses with respect to the damage that trolling can do to a conversation.

Have you ever tried to roll up into 4chan and tell people an honest, emotional story? It is not advised. Any one particular conversation might be tolerable in that environment, but the problem is that the trolls are always there, and constant trolling does inflict some sort of toll on those who are trying to be serious. And so what happens is that the earnest users leave until you're left with the situation where anyone who makes the mistake of being "real" is the only one in the room.

The difference between 4chan and MetaFilter (or even reddit) is moderation, not a tolerance to trolling. MeFi is usable only because of the mods, or else every thread would be a holy war over circumcision or Palin or 3rd-person pronouns until no one useful was left on the site.
posted by TypographicalError at 8:51 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The difference between 4chan and MetaFilter (or even reddit) is moderation, not a tolerance to trolling.

4chan is a bad example because they purposely promote a trollish culture and because the emphasis is on having a lot of short-lived, image-heavy threads. I have been a part of plenty of completely unmoderated communities and the climate in those communities mainly depended on the people involved. Using Usenet as an example again, there were a lot more unmoderated newsgroups that were similar to MetaFilter than there were ones that were similar to 4chan.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:06 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I had to use my real name, I would never post anywhere, ever. I don't think I conduct myself in an uncivil fashion, but these days, everyone lives in the Google fishbowl. I don't want to have to weigh every goddamn thing I say online, for fear that it might be used against me someday.

Besides, unless you establish some sort of mandatory central identity authority, this argument is meaningless for anybody with even a reasonably common name.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:21 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


The difference between 4chan and MetaFilter (or even reddit) is moderation, not a tolerance to trolling.

4chan is ABOUT trolling. That's the difference.
posted by equivocator at 9:23 PM on June 20, 2011


You've clearly lost some perspective. I suspect that time spent on Metafilter has given you rose-colored glasses with respect to the damage that trolling can do to a conversation.

The website where I've done most of my online posting/chatting is not MetaFilter; it is a site that is almost entirely unmoderated and brimming with trolls.

Have you ever tried to roll up into 4chan and tell people an honest, emotional story?

No, because that's not what 4chan is for, and that's not why people go there. People go to 4chan to look at porn, anime, and cats, and make dumb comments, and have a clubhouse where the ethos of the privileged teenage male reigns supreme. It draws a narrow crowd. The reasons people go to a news site are broad, and it draws a broad crowd. The presence of trolls, in and of itself, doesn't turn every site into 4chan.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:24 PM on June 20, 2011


And I might also say it's the other way around, where time spent on Metafilter might have oversensitized you to the damage trolling can do. Remember, here, the OP isn't supposed to guide the thread, steer its direction or do much commenting. So you're kind of helpless here to thread-torpedoing. But that's not the case anywhere else that I know of. When you can keep ignoring a troll and steering a conversation back to the conversation you wanted to have, there's really not much the troll can do.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:30 PM on June 20, 2011


Many comment sections are “an exercise in faux democracy” and that there would be “more honest, kinder, civil exchanges if people used their real names.” - Alicia Shepard, former ombudsman for National Public Radio

Hey Alicia, if you wanted 'more honest' exchanges and 'kinder' comments at NPR, you could have called torture 'torture' and done away with the euphemisms.

Sometimes you deserve to be verbally bludgeoned by all-comers, anonymous or otherwise.
posted by grounded at 9:49 PM on June 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


grounded : Hey Alicia, if you wanted 'more honest' exchanges and 'kinder' comments at NPR, you could have called torture 'torture' and done away with the euphemisms.

This, a thousand times this.

The biggest enemies of online privacy seem to have this delusion that no one would call them out for their BS if only, if only, they had to do it as themselves - Never mind why people might rip on them for spewing garbage into the ether.

I find it unsurprisingly, then, that those same enemies of privacy come from two obvious camps - Politicians and traditional media. The former consider their words Sacred Truth(tm), and the later realize, by nature of their profession, how potent a weapon words can make.
posted by pla at 3:37 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


A few people here and in the OP have suggested that the problem of 'bad' comments could be solved by having writers engage there. It isn't quite as simple as that.

I have a personal blog, and most posts get a few comments; sometimes the really popular ones might get dozens. I have had few problems with trolls because of the example set by the majority of commenters (who are polite), because they tend to trickle in, and because I can easily delete them. Even when there are a lot of comments, I still take the time to respond to every single one, and I think that improves the atmosphere and makes people realise they can't just throw shit at me.

A friend of mine writes for the Guardian, and she's had some real problems with horrible commenters. I remember thinking that if only she would engage with them, she'd solve the problem. When I started writing for the Telegraph, I told myself that I'd engage and it'd be fine.

Of course, that didn't happen. Some of my posts - the less controversial ones - would only have 20-30 comments and they were pretty OK. But the controversial ones about education, they got 200 in the space of a day and I just couldn't keep up. Not only that, but they were pure ad hominem insults. Even when I replied to them directly, they just kept on flinging the shit. If it were my blog, I'd just delete them - and I did complain to my editors, but they said their hands were tied (censorship, moderation, liability, etc).

Since they've been hands-off for so long, there's just an in-grained culture of abusiveness among some commenters on the bigger sites that is not going to be fixed by individual writers jumping in, not unless they're paid to spend a serious amount of time doing that (which I am not). There is practically no moderation at all, and frankly it's tired me out to the point where I can't even bear looking at the comments on my Telegraph pieces any more.
posted by adrianhon at 3:40 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


or in situations where an honest discussion of sensitive issues requires a temporary veil.

In other words, when anonymity is a privilege, not a right.

AskMe allowing people to ask a question anonymously at their request leads to insightful questions of sensitive matter that people can then handle appropriately.

Yahoo News, for example, simply offers anonymous commenting, which is why the first comment after every news article is "I bet a black guy did this! Did they say if he smelled?" (actual comment I once read)
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:16 AM on June 21, 2011


As long as they don't come for eponymous....
posted by srboisvert at 4:49 AM on June 21, 2011


This is such a first-world problem. I think the greatest democratizing effect of the internet is that you can be anonymous.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:01 AM on June 21, 2011


adrianhon, I think the problem is popularity and more eyes seeing it, period. As long as my shallow little blog stays unpopular, then yeah, I don't have a problem with insane commenters. But if I posted on Salon.com, then.... If there's more eyes seeing your work, then that is where the crazies are going to come in. In swarms. And as you pointed out, you can't manage comments on a public news site.

Makes me happy I'm unpopular. But then again, I deliberately keep it that way. No "follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook, TrackBack, GIVE ME HITS GIVE ME HITS" shit going on. Things stay quiet, and I'm cool with that. Less psychos find you that way.

Back to the original question, I also do not want Facebook to be the only way anyone can sign their posts to anything either, nor do I want every single thing done under my full name all the time. I'm fine with having to sign A name, but given how anything you post online can now get you in trouble at work, even if it wasn't anything crucial, I'd still like the option of fudging things a bit just in case.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:33 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would never comment without anonymity. It seems the only reason to attack anonymity is to preserve the ability to (a) judge people's comments based on their demographic characteristics and (b) make them suffer repercussions in real life for the things they write online.

The only cure for bad speech is more speech.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:42 AM on June 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


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