Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

by Mathew on March 20, 2010 · 178 comments

Updated: I enjoy a good debate about media-related topics pretty much any time, even when I’m supposed to be on vacation with the family in Florida. Today, in between playing shuffleboard and bocce and taking the kids to the swimming pool, I had a rousing back-and-forth on Twitter with Howard Owens — who was formerly with Gatehouse Media and is now running a local news site called The Batavian — about the evils (Howard) and virtues (me) of anonymous comments. Along the way, we sucked Steve Yelvington and others into the fray as well. Did we settle the issue? Not even close. In fact, I’m not sure it can ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

In a nutshell, Howard said that anonymous comments were an abomination (I’m paraphrasing somewhat) and were in fact unethical, since commenters on a news site had a “fundamental right” to know the identity of the other people commenting. I tried to make a number of points, including the fact that anonymity is a red herring, and that the more important thing in encouraging a strong and healthy community conversation is standards of behaviour, regardless of anonymity. I also tried to make the point that anonymity has its benefits, and that many people — some of whom might have valuable contributions to make — would never comment if they had to use real names (Howard made the point that allowing anonymity excludes other people).

Howard noted that his beliefs about anonymous comments come from “a vast body” of real-world experience, not just theories and supposition. While I may not have a vast body of experience, I spent several years dealing with comments at the Globe and Mail, where we routinely got 7,000 or more comments every day — and for the past year or so I was in charge of moderating those comments, so anonymity is something I not only have seen the downside of, but feel pretty strongly about (hence the debate). And I surveyed our readers about it extensively, so I know how many of them feel as well — in fact, I wrote a whole blog post about exactly that topic in 2008.

After I took the job as online Communities Editor, the first thing people said to me was “You have to fix the comments — they’re terrible.” And the second thing they said was: “We should make people use their real names. That would solve everything.” The first of those observations was arguably true, since the Globe and Mail comments were in many cases terrible. But the second observation was not even close to being true, or at least I didn’t think so. For one thing, I knew that there were some online communities that allowed anonymous comments and yet had pretty healthy comment boards, including Metafilter (one of my favourites) and Slashdot. (I’m not the only one to defend anonymous comments — a former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com did so as well, despite his earlier dislike of them).

The other thing I knew was that it is virtually impossible to actually verify someone’s identity online, unless you ask them for their social insurance (or social security) number, or their credit-card number. And while I have no empirical evidence to prove it, I have a pretty strong feeling that this would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (as would charging for the right to comment, which someone on Twitter suggested as a solution). And I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible. Not that you don’t moderate offensive comments — far from it. In fact, I think moderation and engagement (as Steve Yelvington notes in this post) can make up for a lot of what Howard sees as the downsides of anonymity (a point Jim Lippard also made).

When I’m asked about comments, I often say that to me, comments and the ability to interact through them are like democracy. Most people support democracy and its various principles, even though in practice it is frequently ugly and brutal and betrays some of the worst elements of humanity for everyone to see (Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others). So it is with comments. And just as anonymity has a broader purpose in a democratic society — whistleblowing, for example (a point Topix CEO Chris Tolles made), and keeping a check on arbitrary authority — I think it has a purpose in comments and online communities as well.

As I mentioned during our debate, I think that persistent (and quasi-verified) identity agents like Facebook Connect and OpenID can help with some of the problems that online comments have — not necessarily “real” identity so much as persistent identity. It’s not really important that I know who Shelley456 is when she comments, but if she is Shelley456 everywhere she comments, then she has devoted some time (theoretically) to establishing that identity, and therefore will be less likely to destroy it by spewing Nazi hate in some online comment board. Sites that take advantage of persistent identity can become a little like World of Warcraft, allowing people to “level up” through good behaviour, relying on the fact that they won’t behave badly because they have devoted so much time to their virtual identities.

In any case, as I noted on Twitter, I didn’t pick on Howard because I wanted to start a fight over comments — I got into the debate because I think it’s an important issue and because it needs to be thought about and talked about if we are to get it right (and I’m willing to admit that what is right for Howard on his community news site is not what might be right for another news site or entity). Thanks to everyone who took part.

Update: John Bracken of the MacArthur Foundation wrote a post about this discussion, and so did Steve Buttry — who is director of community engagement for the new hyper-local Washington news site that Jim Brady is setting up for Allbritton Communications, and therefore is pretty interested in different approaches to reader comments. Steve’s post is here.

John Temple also said he is interested in the discussion — John is the former editor of the Rocky Mountain News and is now with Pierre Omidyar’s new Peer News startup, and his recent comments about comments started me thinking again about anonymity and how it is a red herring in online community. As Chris Garrett noted in the context of another discussion about online community, “pseudonym does not mean fake.” Jack Lail also has a post with a collection of links he has been putting together about online news site comments.

  • mediagrunt

    Coming into this discussion very late, via GigaOm…

    I don't think anonymity is really the issue. I think there are plenty of people who would be just as obnoxious as commenters regardless of anonymity; they are proud of their uncivil views or behavior.

    I think the problem is scale; once the conversation gets big enough and involves more people, the odds of attracting trolls, and the odds of the conversation spiraling out of control, grow dramatically.

    I see this over and over in commenting threads. The comments and the conversation start out civil, then someone wanders into the room and tosses a grenade and the flame wars begin. It's akin to a schoolyard fight, where two people start out arguing, then the crowd of bystanders grows and eventually starts egging on the participants with chants of “Fight, fight, fight!'' Before long, fists are flying and no one can remember what the original disagreement is about.

    In my view, the only way to address this is through aggressive moderation that bottles up trolls before they can infect the comment thread. Those people hijack conversations and scare off other voices who have valuable contributions to make. What's more, if I ran a local news web site, I'd consider limiting comments to those people whose IP addresses indicates they are local and therefore have a vested interest in the conversation. There are many outsider serial commenters on SFGate.com, for example, who take great pleasure in dominating online conversations about local SF issues that have no effect on them. As a consequence, the SFGate comments have devolved into shouting matches among a smallish group of big-mouths who feel justified in commenting on any and all topics and who may or may not be part of the community. I can't imagine why anyone else would want to wade into the middle of those scenes.

  • Pingback: This Week in Review: Anonymous news comments, two big media law cases, and a health coverage critique » Nieman Journalism Lab

  • elainejohnson

    There is a real need for anonymity, particularly on hyperlocal blogs that are attempting to be more than mere bulletin boards of community events. In the three years I've been blogging, both I and real-name commenters have been subject to political push back for our views. That is a key reason why I will not require “real names” (as if I could). I do, however, moderate comments and have found that real names are no guarantee of civility.
    I keep wondering when online journos are going to move on from debating anonymity to the *real*l freedom of speech/the press issues confronting hyperlocal bloggers that run afoul of the political elite simply by attempting to report the news.
    See my post for more: http://www.dgreport.com/index.php/2010/03/01/th

  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    Are you going to correct your mistake or not? Here, lemme take a wild guess.

  • Anonymous Commenter

    Joe, try going through the steps for registering for a Metafilter profile. You can sign up with any name you choose, select any user name you like and use any e-mail – even a Gmail account you just signed up for.

    They don't require people to use their real name when posting comments. Which makes it anonymous.

    (See? Anonymous posts can be informative and insightful…)

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for that, er… Anonymous :-)

  • http://twitter.com/mccarney/statuses/11320723847 mccarney (Mike McCarney)

    Twitter Comment


    I think comments should not be anonymous in most cases, do you? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Pingback: This Week in Review: Anonymous news comments, two big media law cases, and a health coverage critique | Mark Coddington

  • Pingback: Comments and Anonymity « Reinventing the Newsroom

  • http://minusmanhattan.tumblr.com/ Minus Manhattan

    I think anonymity encourages a culture of meanness and trolling.

  • Chung W

    This newspaper letter writer got into hot water after praising a politician. She hid her identity, hiding that she worked for this politician she praised. But ultimately…her comments were her identity signature…she got confronted and caught.

    http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/Gu

  • Pingback: Why Participation Journalism is Good for You and Your Readers « Karen K. Ho

  • http://www.pulloutbed.net/ Pull Out Bed

    I agree with you. Some people need a privacy!

  • http://twitter.com/virtualex/statuses/12087367078 virtualex (Alex Schaffert)

    Twitter Comment


    RT @wjchat: Comments + anonymity Wed 5PM PDT. Read up & discuss w/us http://nyti.ms/ahehWp http://bit.ly/9YEj5K [link to post] #wjchat

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/wjchat/statuses/12081672106 wjchat (wjchat)

    Twitter Comment


    Today we’re thinking abt comments + anonymity. Read up & discuss with us Wed http://nyti.ms/ahehWp http://bit.ly/9YEj5K [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • CivilThoughtful

    Excellent analysis and thoughtful positioning. Thanks.

  • hawkins

    I don't like anonymous comments, I want everyone to know my email: hawkins@kobelco-eagle.com

  • Pingback: To name or not to name? The anonymous comments conundrum « RJI

  • Pingback: A case for better comments «

  • Pingback: Internet Strategy for News Organisations » Blog Archive » Course Syllabus

  • Pingback: Do Facebook-driven comments kill trolls? - Ad Slant: webtrends - Enterprise Customer Intelligence - True/Slant

  • Pingback: Internet Strategy for News Organisations » Session 4: Software for communities

  • Pingback: Publish2 link roundup | Andrew Zahler

  • Heryshy

    Every time I read a good article, I usually do three things:
    1. Share it with my close friends.
    2. Bookmark it in all my favorite social bookmarking sites.
    3. Be sure to visit the same website where I first read the article.
    After reading this article, I am really thinking of going ahead and doing all three of the above!

  • http://twitter.com/AureliaCotta/statuses/24129239218 AureliaCotta (Aurelia Cotta)

    Twitter Comment


    @sproudfoot @edbott [link to post] I wonder if that’s his persistent identity? ;) (link is matthew ingram post on this)

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/V3nu_K4r4d1/statuses/24172426200 V3nu_K4r4d1 (Venu Karadi)

    Twitter Comment


    Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?
    [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/AureliaCotta/statuses/24128361764 AureliaCotta (Aurelia Cotta)

    Twitter Comment


    @DanGoodchild @gameandpc @jeffjedras [link to post] //good points

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/chagota/statuses/24391395238 chagota (guylaine l’heureux )

    Twitter Comment


    @ydb (la suite) entre autres, ceci, rédigé par @mathewi, avait retenu mon attention [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

Older post:

Newer post: