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.