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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    Mathew…interestingly your name online only has 1 “t”…is that your real spelling. As a journalist, i would have to say that's rare. Although i've seen Davyd and Kym before! I dont think one can say Anonymous or having Real Names can be applied in every situation. In journalism we shield names of rape victims, insider/deep throats, and other special situations. But the people are validated for credibility. So the question is…is a comment board credible?

  • Chung W

    tech people like to look at authentication, access, authorization issues from a tech lens. there are security measures that have nothing to do with technology. i agree with the argument that what someone writes in words is somewhat of a signature. “Mathew” is clearly articulate on this subject – so that's somewhat of a signature for me.

    The majority of users can't fake things continuously, or regularly. We believe our friends are our friends online because of what they post…and sometimes they verify this in person. I believe a friend's friend is legitimate because a friend says this is a friend. They're still ways to cheat a verified account or any security technology in general, but ultimately if you post regularly, you can't cheat to easily. Fake posts can get caught as well – but the real person at some point or one of their friends. One of my friends had someone on Twitter posing as her…the account was caught by a friend.

  • Chung W

    scuze my typos – no edit button here!

  • Chung W

    Email can't verify…you can create fake accounts. Ultimately it's what you post on your profile and your track record of posting (see FB and Twitter) that shows how valid, valuable, meaningful or truthful you are. FB and Twitter have friends and followers to validate. When someone has 0 tweets or 0 followers i automatically think this is spam/fake…the user couldn't even get a friend to follow them.

  • Chung W

    persistence implies some continuity of regularly posting….that's the key key. twitter/facebook show this.

  • Chung W

    differentiating repeat anonymous commentators who post two or more comments is also not exactly a good user experience. If one “anonymous” person posts 55 comments…it deceives the readership somewhat.

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  • http://ceejayoz.com/ ceejayoz

    “Banned” was a poor choice of wording on my part. I would not be welcome to post comments as “ceejayoz”, correct?

  • http://www.commbasics.typepad.com/ Lou Covey

    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.

  • http://twitter.com/lnxwalt/statuses/10858345162 lnxwalt (lnxwalt)

    Twitter Comment


    Anon speech is the foundation of free expression. Without it, there is no freedom to say / write what you wish. [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/digiphile/statuses/10826069781 digiphile (Alex Howard)

    Twitter Comment


    Great comments on anonymous comments: @mathewi: [link to post] & @howardowens: http://j.mp/cA3eV3 @SteveButtry: http://j.mp/8WWSPX #meta

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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  • http://fastforwardacademy.com/ enrolled agent study

    Sol is right, anonymity is the shield of those people who want to say something but because they cannot afford to known for some reasons, then they have to remain anonymous. The important thing is that ideas are given that adds or subtract to the weight of the matter being discussed.

  • http://lnxwalt.wordpress.com/ lnxwalt

    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.

  • http://lnxwalt.wordpress.com/ lnxwalt

    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.

  • http://www.mgleizer.net/ Heru Kurniawan

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

  • http://twitter.com/BBCCollege/statuses/10876263904 BBCCollege (BBC CoJo)

    Twitter Comment


    Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil? [link to post] … good disco in the comments (tip @NinemanLab)

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/sazbean/statuses/10876955463 sazbean (sazbean)

    Twitter Comment


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

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • patriciaburton

    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?

  • http://twitter.com/Don_Crowther/statuses/10884837268 Don_Crowther (Don Crowther)

    Twitter Comment


    Anonymous Coments: Are they good or evil? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/evelopez/statuses/10885185483 evelopez (Eve Lopez)

    Twitter Comment


    RT @Don_Crowther: Anonymous Coments: Are they good or evil? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Chung W

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

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • Chung W

    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.

  • http://twitter.com/clampetfrommers Jason Clampet

    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

  • http://realadvertising.cc Frymaster

    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.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I would love to see those kinds of numbers too.

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  • http://realadvertising.cc Frymaster

    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…

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    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.

  • http://twitter.com/juliaschrenkler Julia Schrenkler

    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.

  • http://twitter.com/nabidka/statuses/10895811546 nabidka (nabidka)

    Twitter Comment


    anonymous comments: good or evil? [link to post]: http://bit.ly/bndHvc

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/Switched/statuses/10894748745 Switched (Switched)

    Twitter Comment


    anonymous comments: good or evil? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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  • Chung W

    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.

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  • http://twitter.com/juliaschrenkler Julia Schrenkler

    *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.

  • http://twitter.com/blogsoftheworld/statuses/10962619875 blogsoftheworld (blogs of the world)

    Twitter Comment


    In a nutshell, Howard said that anonymous comments were an abomination (I’m paraphrasing s… [link to post] #anonymous

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/justinNXT/statuses/10987505639 justinNXT (Justin Ellis)

    Twitter Comment


    thoughts on #comments, @mathewi makes case for anonimity [link to post] @Mjenkins says we need to interact better http://bit.ly/cCrmFg

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/10986216000 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment


    @JustinNXT: I tried to get at that issue in this post: [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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