Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

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.

178 thoughts on “Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

  1. reality check: there are some things we'll never be able to control in comments. people can always find a way to mask their identity, to disrupt or heckle or be flat-out offensive. whether it's offered or not, they can find anonymity by concealing their identity.

    good suggestions here in the comment thread, though most are difficult to rigidly enforce. i like the idea of persistent identity, sites setting the tone for conversation and interaction, authors engaging and rewarding users, and communities self-policing. when we created http://trueslant.com we thought about this quite a bit. we wanted to provide meaningful news comments, especially in this age of iterative story-telling. our 300+ contributors (entrepreneurial journalists) manage the comments by curating those that are most interesting. they 'call out' comments, and the filtered thread appears as the default view. those who want to see more can click through to all comments. so far, it's worked really well. the contributor guides the discussion, keeping the noise at bay.

    with more and more people engaging (rather than passively lurking), preserving your own reputation becomes that much more important in comments or any social media context.

    • Thanks for the comment, Andreaitis — I haven't taken a close look at True/Slant, but I think that approach is a good one. Engagement by the writer is key, and curating comments is one of the ways of modelling behaviour and providing incentives for people to make better comments.

    • i agree how you engage a commentator is key. segregating (categories – featured, insults, politics, etc) or ranking comments will improve reader experiences. However, i still point out, profiles on twitter and facebook are less fake than profiles on comment boards. A comment board needs to distinguish itself from a chat room where anything goes. On FB and Twitter, users have to post regularly to show their identity to prove even to friends, you are who you are. An FB, Kindle, or iPad app etc for comment boards can improve content or validate identity better.

  2. A few more thoughts (and the ability to expand beyond 140 char bites is nice, too).

    On verifying identity: It's not really all that hard. First, the vast majority of of people who try to participate anonymously make it darn easy to spot. People who register with the first name “Not” and last name 'MyName” never even get their accounts approved. Without giving away too much, there are other clues I've learned to spot for those who aren't registering with their real name. When a fake name does sneak by, it's usually not long before the person's own comments give them away. There is a high correlation between people who don't want to comment under their real name and also leave uncivil comments. People who want to be part of a civil dialogue rarely have any problem doing so under their real name. People who prefer to be uncivil will try to skirt the system, but then they give themselves away by their behavior. At which point, I check available public databases to see if a person by that name lives in the town/city he or she claims. If not, they're given a chance to produce a NYS ID. If they refuse, they're banned. So this is neither a time consuming nor impossible process.

    There is some advantage to doing this in a small town where everybody pretty much knows everybody. We had one guy who got away with a fake name for six months. He claimed to own a small factory employing 50 people. His bio was consistent throughout his commenting history. But he also did some local business bashing that made other business owners suspicious and they alerted me that here was a guy they should know, but didn't. Further investigation revealed nobody by that name owned a manufacturing business in the town he claimed. He then admitted to using a fake name and refused to identify himself, so he was banned.

    The majority of our users, I should note, LOVE our real name policy. It has contributed greatly to our credibility as a news site and as a hub for community conversation.

    Matthew, we kind of touched on this in twitter, and you repeat here the assertion that a real name policy would reduce participation. If The Batavian can serve as an incubator for the validity of a real name policy, then I think we have strong evidence that not only does a real name policy not reduce participation, it actually encourages it. We have a very robust commenting community that continues to grow, far beyond the other online forums available in our region. We have many people participate who tell me directly they would not participate if we allowed anonymous comments.

    I think our real name policy does a better job of fulfilling the mission of opening up the conversation to as many people as possible than allowing anonymous postings does.

    There is not a dichotomy between what Steve Yelvington talks about as far as being an engaged leader of a community and insisting on real names. In fact, even a real name policy would fail without leadership and participation and example setting by the owner of the site (and owner can be an employee — the person who takes ownership responsibility, not necessarily the deed holder). These are not mutually exclusive ideas, but each works best when they compliment the other.

    As for the issue of persistent ID vs. real ID, the problem with persistent ID is that it's too easy for the would-be jerks to subvert. If Shelley456 turns out to be a bad actor and I ban her, she just becomes Julie456 and I have no way to know that Julie456 is really Shelley456, and have to go through a whole new process of building the case to ban Julie456. Meanwhile, the quality and credibility of my online community is being diminished as I go through a series of battles to weed out the bad actors.

    The advantage of real ID, then, is that while a person can have multiple persistent IDs, they can have only one real ID.

    As as I noted before, I really find that the person who would be trusted in a persistent ID program is almost always going to be somebody who isn't going to soil the community, and that same person will gladly give up his or her real ID for the sake of an unsoiled community.

    Further, I think it is critically important that you know who Shelley456 is in real life.

    Here's an example: Because of our real name policy, we had two people who had registered months and months ago with their real names. One of them was a bartender at a local tavern. We happened to have a post up about that tavern. This person came on and (while using her original registered identity) left a comment about the bar owner and what an evil person he was (really a libelous statement that while I'm not legally responsible for, there is a credibility issue that goes along with allowing such statements). I didn't spot the comment for a few hours, but removed it immediately. The next night a similar comment was left by another person. That was down within minutes. I was kind of hoping this bar owner didn't see the comments. But he did. And he knew both of these people — one was a person he had just fired and the other was her live in boyfriend. So rather than be mad at me for allowing such unvetted nonsense, he was able to put the comments in context of knowing who the real person was and not blame me and just laugh about it.

    These are the kind of subtle issues of context that make real ID so powerful in an digital community serving a specific ge0-community. Real ID gives context to the comments left by people that are just impossible with either anonymity or persistent ID.

    This makes for a richer, more trusted, more robust, more valuable, more credible online community.

    Finally, my thoughts on this pertain only to news sites that combine original reporting with online community, where maintaining the credibility of the news organization is important. That's why this is also an ethical issue for me. I'm talking about news organizations, not aggregators or sites that serve other purposes. Each site needs to devise a policy appropriate for its business model or community plan. But I do think it's important that those who run news organizations to seriously consider a real name policy for the sake of consistent ethics related to their news gathering mission and news org credibility.

    Further, I'm not being critical of those who choose to be anonymous online. This isn't about individual behavior. It's about news org behavior. Individuals are welcome to pursue a life of anonymity, but just not on my site. I've had people who say they won't participate on my site because they don't want to use their real names. I say, “Fine, go set up your own blog. If I find it credible and worthy, even if anonymous, I might even link to some of your posts as appropriate — but if you're going to comment on my site, you're going to do so under your real name. Period.”

    • Thanks for the elaboration, Howard. I'm prepared to admit that the
      process you have at The Batavian works for you, and may even be the
      best approach for a small site like yours (and I don't mean that in a
      condescending way). But I don't think it scales.

      And even the process of verifying what you call “real” names, in the
      end, quickly becomes (and I know because I have been there) a policy
      of requiring real-*sounding* names, which is no better than just
      admitting that comments are effectively anonymous.

      Do I think that comments would be better if people used their real
      names and identities? Sure I do. But I don't think that is ever going
      to happen on a larger scale, and I think there are benefits to
      anonymity that you ignore, including the whistleblower or check on
      arbitrary authority angle.

      • Mathew, I disagree with it becoming “real sounding names.” Like I said, the people who don't want to use their real names become pretty obvious pretty quickly. They give themselves away, because they have impure motivations to begin with.

        There's certainly a subtle to develop the ability to spot the 2 percent or so of users who will try intelligently to subvert the system.

        There are certainly vast virtues to be gained by a real ID system that can withstand the potential of 1 or 2 percent of users managing to get away with a fake name for some period of time (if not forever).

        The goal isn't 100 percent compliance, it's enough compliance to ensure news org credibility.

        As for scale, all it takes is an appropriate number of skilled and experienced community managers/leaders to the size of the community. It will scale just fine.

        • On Twitter (whether verified or not) and Facebook, i think it is easy to differentiate the impostors from authentic voices who post. Impostors will find it difficult to regularly post, to profile who they really are. On FB one user pretended to be Michael Moore (college student from Arizona) to generate friends. I interviewed Michael Moore and watched all of his docs. The impostor's posts simply didnt sound like Michael Moore. A true voice has a unique identity in writing. I had a dialogue with @Shane_Macgowan on Twitter on his challenges of proving he was the singer with the Pogues. Even Twitter's verified status can be fooled. I told him to post pictures/videos of something he would do – you can't fake the future. And that's what he did regularly to prove he was Shane Macgowan to raise funds for his single for Haiti. For less famous people, i agree what they post is still very telling of their identity, more so than their name. I run a community site powered by Ning which recently got attacked by spammers. One fake user posted marketing to sell drugs (pharma). The email addresses clearly looked generated by spambots and differed from user names dramatically. But i mostly knew the user was an impostor from what was posted – editorial forensics. Likewise, before Shane proved he was Shane, his voice in written words was a signature.

      • This issue is really more than one issue:

        – identity verification and security online
        – freedom of speech
        – improving quality of reading
        – defamation/hatemail
        – protecting sources

        I've been in editorial on and off for 22 years – in print, broadcast and online. So i am curious to know why something is different in policy, values, or effectiveness online (vs offline). I've helped launch one of Canada national's news sites before. But policies were really emerging/evolving back then.

        Offline – you do have to verify who you are. In college, students had to show their student ID (they could publish anonymously – and that was useful especially in the case of a sexual assault victim, someone who experienced child abuse or who was in the closet about their sexual orientation writing about the subject). Hatemail was not published – and subject to the criminal law.

        In daily newspapers, letters to the editor are validated by return address (snail mail) and often by phone number (contact info). A print publisher is liable for libel in comments (because they are not user-generated posts).

        Online you just have to make best efforts to prevent something defamatory from being posted by users randomly. But there is still some liability if this is not managed reasonably. Otherwise a site could just publish anything – including hate mail.

        I still argue if the goal is to get the best comments, you have to have the best editorial and method of moderation for debate. It has less to do with identity. A heckler will still show up. So will special interest activists and people who only comment for party, not issue.

        I do think, for a better reader experience, bashing/insults or comments that are focused on political parties and not issues should be segregated for readers.

        The New York Times has better comments because of its better editorial i argue.

        But i agree asking for a name is important for someone to personally vouch for what they are saying. Anonymity is important to protect a source (when that is called for – e.g. a whistle blower).

        I dont put my last name on sites like this because of identity theft, but i do on sites i recognize – no differently than a by-line. Even on FB there are viruses stealing your name and passwords and then pretend to be you to your friends. Twitter has the same viruses or phishing attacks. So i am a little more careful where my full name goes.

        I was referred this site on Twitter.

  3. One big point that Howard is missing, I think, is that real names can be *more* anonymous than screennames. Before I got married, I was “Chris Johnson” – there were two in my high school alone, imagine how many there probably were in my metro area!

    My screenname, though, is unique to me. Whois'ing ceejayoz.com gets you my home address. I'd be more anonymous as “Chris Johnson” than “ceejayoz”, but I'd be banned from The Batavian for using the more identifying name.

    • i once got a letter to the editor in college from a student with the same name as me! imagine getting critiqued by someone with your own name! i truly thing the best way to validate identities or qualify comments are to display your profile to show the community who you are like Twitter and FB…you have to post regularly to validate your value or ID to the community.

      • PS in college you had to show your Student ID to post a letter to the Editor. but you had a choice to be anonymous when published.

  4. The argument that anonymous comments turn ugly isn't valid because it assumes that attaching identity will clean them up. Not true. From my experience on manage several large social accounts, I have been surprised at some of the commenting by people who have their identities attached. The better question is what does identity mean on the Web?

    • I agree, Vadim — identity online is a somewhat fluid concept, I
      think, and that can be both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on
      the person involved and the situation.

    • I've banned people before who were using their real names. It's easier to do and make sure they don't come back when they use their real names. I made that point previously.

      Also, this isn't just cleaning up comments — though that's part of it — it's also an ethical issue about providing users on a news site with the best possible experience.

    • I agree. As i posted in my comment, people register names in online games and there are a lot of slurs – 1 in 10 games it seems. I think Facebook/Twitter profiles and mobile devices that text comments online tend to be authentic – so that's one way of posting names that are validated. You have to show your profile to show your friends or the community how authentic you are. Editorial sites dont do this.

  5. i posted anonymously today at the Ottawa Citizen. Not intentionally so. The site didn't ask for my name. http://www.ottawacitizen.com/technology/This+pu

    On The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and National Post, i always post with my name – sometimes hoping to be contacted to expand a comment into an opinion piece. In print, you can verify a letter writer by address and phone number. I was contacted by The Globe and Mail for verification to have one opinion piece printed. My ID wasnt checked though.

    When posting my name, I do think twice about identity theft or how a strong opinion impacts anything in my life. We don't really live in a society of freedom of speech. Political views determine an outcome often.

    As well, if you work for a non-profit, grants will be cut if you are political, or show too much advocacy vs education (tax dollars cannot be perceived to be used for politics or advocacy). I don't depend on grants right now, but when i do, i curb what i say. That's very common in Canada.

    There are also employers who dont like employees who opine too loudly, or publish any opinions that are not theirs or with their spin on the same view. Employers even report they judge what people post online before hiring them.

    And let's not forget the cyber-stalkers out there. Many people online have experienced them. (anecdote)

    With my name – when i am online playing backgammon the number of people who make unprintable comments in chat is significant. 1 in 10 games i play earns a slur or an insult to my mother (sometimes wishing cancer on us).

    When i read comments, however, sometimes i wonder if the writer of the article or their friends are posting with fake names or anonymously because some comments seem so skewed. Likewise when political opposition is posting.

    Whether anonymous or not – the illuminating comments are lost among people who often comment this is either the fault of the Tories or Liberals (unbelievable how many comments are about political parties and not issues). That's reflective of the world. I have a lot of friends who will criticize/defend on party lines or politics continuously whether it has merit or not. They comment like a vote for a political party. That seems to be the majority of comments. There too many comments politically skewed for political strategy.

    I've always thought comments should be categorized like this:

    – Insight
    – Political Views
    – Stereotyping
    – Insults

    That really sums up what i read often. I often have to skip over the latter three categories of comments…because you almost see them for every story – different stories.

    I think if there is an opportunity for a guest commentator to be a guest opinion writer – you would have better comments. People would compete to have more insightful comments.

    Interestingly this week, when Margaret Wente at The Globe and Mail made some bold claim this week that females dont prefer to blog (and that blogging was a male thing), The Globe and Mail got hundreds of comments causing national/US media coverage. I posted a comment that Ms Wente failed to reference Huffington Post (most popular blog online) and Daily Beast being started by women. Somehow this issue got skewed towards mommy bloggers in debate. But it least it wasn't about Tories and Liberals!

    Ms. Wente claimed commentators were “unsophisticated” but ironically there were a fair number of sophisticated comments proving how “unsophisticated” her column was…commentators in fact made this story Canada's #1 trending Twitter topic in the last few days. I really do think the quality of comments depends on the quality (or lack there of) of journalism to attract comments. And also how comments are moderated. The Globe and Mail censored a lot of live chat comments with Margaret Wente. This was posted in comments later.

    The New York Times has world caliber comments because everyone wants to look good when published with the NY Times. Some even craft poems as comments to be published:

    http://bygonebureau.com/2010/03/17/the-comment-

    Authentication is impossible. Online poker games found that out when two players could be the same person at a four player table to cheat. eBay is finding out it is easy to one person to be multiple users to pump up bids.

    You could, however, have a Facebook application to post comments with FB profiles which tend to be less fake. Or perhaps an iPad application or equivalent linked to a personal device. But again, privacy and identify theft issues come about. Do i trust even the Globe and Mail to protect my personal info–No.

    But i do argue, when you have someone declare a name – you will get less anonymous remarks. And for someone to provide a fake name – they would have to endeavour to be fake (uncomfortable for people with integrity who read stories).

  6. Thanks for enlarging the debate. I am often appalled by the anonymous comments on many new sites and blogs and I know that there are instances where they are necessary.

    I'd love to see the idea of persistent identity applied more widely to anonymous commenters.

  7. Pingback: Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil? (Mathew/mathewingram.com/work) | TechCombo

  8. I wouldn't call them evil or good. Anonymous comments are useless. The purpose of social media is engagement in community. If you are anonymous, you are not part of the community and your input is as valued as an annoying stranger is in a small town meeting.

    • Generally, for anything other than celeb gossip, the most informed commenters are those with the most to lose. Without anon commenting, you'll lose those people, and the “community” will miss out on some ideas and concepts that could energize it in unforeseen ways.

      If we're talking about the banking crisis, without anon commenting, we'll never hear what went on inside the banks from the point of view of a “doing my job” employee.

      Without anon comments, unpopular viewpoints are less likely to be expressed because an employer could see them and punish the person.

      Without anon comments, gov't waste / fraud will not be revealed. Flawed software or vehicles may not be revealed (until years later).

      Without anon comments, an online community often becomes usesless. If you've been a member for any length of time, you have a feel for what person X will say, so you have no need to read that person's comments any more.

  9. Pingback: Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil? | Mathew Ingram | Voices | AllThingsD

  10. I'll take it one step farther. There *is* no free discussion without at least the possibility of anonymity, simply because if someone can trace every comment back to you, they can pressure you or retaliate against you for speaking your mind.

    Anonymous speech is part and parcel of the highest ideals of democracy, and Web forums such as news / discussion sites and blogs need to go ahead and delete foul and offensive comments and not pretend that such comments come about only because of anonymous speech.

    • I agree with this, i have many friends (including those who blog) who won't join a Facebook group that protests a political party's policy (for example) because they fear it affects either their credibility as a blogger or employment prospects…there isn't really carte blanche freedom of association (or speech) without consequences. If so, there would be less people in the closet about their real views, to express who they really are. Comments that are a form of protest particularly may have feared reactions. Otherwise we could be free to comment about companies who have treated employees or consumers badly (for example). But we are really not free to do so in general.

  11. What a great discussion…
    In my opinion anonymous comments are useless. The purpose of social media is engagement in community. Thanks for share

    • This ultimately comes down to a credibility issue. We live in a society where the New York Times (re: Judith Miller) quoted unnamed sources reporting there were WMDs in Iraq…a story that single-handedly started a war (public opinion for it), a story that proved to be off the mark.

  12. Interesting debate. Anonymity really flies in the face of everything journalists have been weaned on, so it's not surprising this debate exists. If I read you right, you're saying closely moderating anynomous comments is the answer. When vetting comments, do you still make an effort allow extreme views from both sides of an issue (using common sense guidelines, of course) so that readers can readily disagree with those comments that make them bristle?

    • Editorials and pieces written by “Staff Writer” or filed by the wire (Reuters, AP etc) are typically anonymous.

      • The definition of anonymous really needs to be clarified…does the media outlet know the person, person's declared name/email etc…huge difference. Is this person just anonymous to the public or to media outlet as well? I agree sources that need to be protected are worthy of anonymity when published.

  13. Great piece Matthew, even thought I don't agree with you. Anonymous, unfiltered comments make it too easy to misbehave. It's true that requiring email verification or OpenID/Facebook Connect scares some people off. And it's true that those things can't ensure nasty comments won't appear. They're not perfect, but they act as a speed bump along the way to a user acting in an anti-social manner. And I think the Internet probably needs a few more speed bumps.

    Proponents of anonymity make too much of the argument that verification of any sort stifles the free flow of ideas. What ideas are we really talking about here most of the time? It's not matters of national security. It's whether the Lakers are good/bad, healthcare is evil/pure, or whether the new iPad is awesome/lame. I'd like to see an example where an anonymous contributor made a whistle-blower or Deep Throat-type contribution to a website that they couldn't have made by setting up a Hotmail account to mask their identity.

    Those of us that work online put a great deal of effort to make our websites good. Verification of any kind simply asks users to make a tiny bit of effort, too, before they use tools that we're giving them for free. Asking someone to spend as little as 15 seconds to verify an email address isn't unreasonable, it's still a tradeoff weighed heavily in their favor.

    –Jason

  14. As has been documented everywhere, NP's policy of unmoderated / self-moderated comments is an abject failure. The time-spent numbers tell the story.

    I'd love to see the delta in minutes-per-visit between G&M, Minn Post-Trib, and other NPs that moderate vs. all the rest that don't. Also, love to track Post-Trib to see what effect moderation had on time-spent. They only started moderating last summer.

      • NAA says that stickiness peaked around the 2008 election / inauguration, but has fallen back to near the tracked lows of 2004, when they started releasing this abomination of a study. (What is it / what are the websites / what's not in there / how do you de-dupe / etc. – not tellin' cuz itz secrit)

        Page views have doubled and uniques have almost doubled. But visits per user has been essentially flat the whole time. Even at it's peak, it was still under an hour per month for sites that could / should be the main point of departure for all things local.

        I could puke.

        PS. Wonder if @dbrauer knows if Star-Tribune, not Post-Tribune, got bounce from moderation. I'll ask…

        • Yes, lots of papers are focusing on building pageviews, but are
          selling them for less and less. Time spent and repeat visits are the
          metrics that matter, and that requires engagement.

  15. Pingback: Does Anonymity Matter in Internet Comments? | Finley & Cook, PLLC

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  17. This discussion and the general evolution of distributed (and possibly confirmed) identity is a pretty handy pair, I think.

    I love that these very discussions are happening online and often between people who have established their identity, confirm it, and understand the importance and influence of their reputation.

    Maybe the new question is… when will that example of people with genuine reputation talking about anonymity be enough, if ever? As lavrusik put it: The better question is what does identity mean on the Web? Are we readers tracking A. Nonymous' comments and giving them the same credence and respect that you enjoy?

    No? Well come on, folks, do you want to change and influence the world? Or do so more quickly and more effectively?

    Note that I'm not referring to people with structured online personas or the persistent identity you've mentioned. What a beautiful term. That continued name/avatar/message absolutely has a reputation too. Sometimes they're more influential than a legal name and the important thing is community recognition.

    While anonymity allows for the miracle of the perfect insider comment (perhaps an otherwise barred one) that opportunity doesn't pay off the way one might hope, or at may not in the same way online reputation does. That relationship, that ongoing understanding of who is saying what and where and how… generally speaking, that trumps the anonymous comment for me. An anonymous message has to be one amazing well-written/amazing concept/perfectly timed comment for many people to take notice.

    Ease of use and low barrier to entry are a separate issue, or should be. I'm still thinking about this and reading the comments here.

    FWIW, My comment here reflects my own thoughts and not those of my employer or any organization I support.

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  19. Why are moderators often kept anonymous? Why not participate like moderators do in live debates? Or do they participate anonymously?

    I think as evidenced by this board – ironically – in certain audiences, a named moderator and named commentators really works.

    • *grin* Great example!

      As an online moderator I've been anonymous (under a generic account after threats) and named (pretty much everywhere else) in different situations. You made me wonder about the impact of that going forward.

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  24. 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.

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  26. 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

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

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