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My argument against anonymous comments

November 18, 2009

Anonymous comments are another one of those things I’ve flip-flopped on in the last year or so and in light of this Poynter post that was passed my way last week, I thought I’d air out my problems with anonymous commenting.

For starters, I don’t agree with everything in the Poynter post, especially the “[anonymous comments are] bad for our democracy” part. (I’d like to see a moratorium on any derivatives of the phrase “bad for our democracy” in journalism discussions in general, but I digress.) The Iranian Election protests were proof enough to me that anonymous comments—Tweets, in this case, but I don’t think that distinction matters (more on that in a minute)—have their place (and can actually be pro-democratic).

What I do agree with is this: “…If you want to say it, put your name next to it.” There’s a reason the best argument in support of anonymous comments involves a violent, state-sanctioned crackdown on anti-government protests—because there’s rarely an occasion when it’s that crucial to remain anonymous. I think when most people fret over being “outed” on comment boards, it’s because they either don’t want their political biases revealed or they don’t want to be held liable for something stupid they said. Either way, I don’t think we’re suffering any big loss if we abolish anonymity. What’s gained, on the other hand, is a measure of quality. Generally speaking, people don’t want themselves associated with lewdness, childishness, craziness, etc., so there’s a sort of natural filter that falls over the boards. That filter may also stifle some discussion, but if filling out a form or using your real name is enough to get you to abandon the publishing of your thoughts, it’s debateable how much you really care about them and thus debateable how much they’re actually worth to begin with.

To avoid any contradictions here, let me clarify that I’m not saying, “Twitter anonymity good/comment board anonymity bad;” I am saying that comments serve different purposes in different formats. On news sites, comment boards ideally serve as the “town square” and opening them to everyone will conjure up the tragedy of the commons. YouTube, on the other hand, embraces the anonymous comment and makes that part of their shtick (comment threads go on forever, occasionally delving into hilarity).

All that said, there are problems with forcing people to use their real names. The biggest, of course, is How do we know these people are who they say they are? Who verifies that and how do we have enough money to pay them to do so? I think the beginning of those answers lies in a few of the following “best practices” (in my view):

  • Use a comment host like Disqus that carries a person’s identity from site to site;
  • Direct reporters (whose stories are being commented on) to regularly moderate and interact on their boards;
  • In time, pick out frequent quality commenters as community moderators;
  • Take steps to encourage and incentivize the use of an avatar, real name, etc.
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