Comments and Anonymity
Like a lot of people concerned with digital news, I followed the debate between Howard Owens and Mathew Ingram about comments and anonymity with great interest. I spent it listening, thinking and letting the two arguments test my assumptions — a process that culminated with posts from Owens and Ingram that nicely sum up two poles of the debate.
Owens offers an excellent justification for his position that anonymous comments not only degrade community but run counter to newspaper ethics; Ingram’s summation of his position is also excellent, acknowledging the unhappy side effects of anonymity but urging us to remember how it can drive more engagement, and arguing that healthy communities rely more on enforcing standards of behavior than with policies on anonymity.
After reading those two posts and thinking about them some more, I think I’m finally ready to jump in with my own thoughts, including a few things I’ve changed my mind about.
After mulling Owens’ points, I decided my position on anonymous comments had gotten tangled up with my thoughts on the bigger issue of anonymity itself, and that I’d fallen prey to some lazy thinking. My default position has always been that you hold your nose about anonymous comments because while anonymity may lead to bad behavior in discussing a proposed shopping mall, toddlers in bars or the merits of middle relievers, the lack of it will almost certainly preclude discussion of Chinese dissent, corporate malfeasance or the struggles of gay teens.
That’s probably true, but it’s also simplistic. Owens notes that the Batavian still gets anonymous tips — they just don’t come through anonymous comments. (Which really isn’t a surprise — why did I assume they would?) And do comment rules have to be the same for every topic? You should put up with hourly headaches policing the Kids in Bars forum because one day you might do something on Chinese dissent? I’ve urged news organizations to get much more sophisticated about understanding how readers came to an article and trying to drive loyalty by showing them relevant stories based on that information, which isn’t a trivial undertaking. So I think they can do that, but haven’t thought beyond a one-size-fits-all comment policy? Really?
Owens also offers a passionate case that anonymous comments run counter to newspaper ethics against anonymous letters to the editor and sources. I found that a welcome reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming practices of the embryonic consumer Web are somehow laws of physics. Anonymous comments aren’t some intrinsic part of the Web that automatically trump decades of newsroom values. To see them that way — which is a temptation when surveying the whole mess — is to let technology lead you around by the nose. We shouldn’t let that happen.
That said, the newspaper-ethics argument against anonymous comments feels a bit forced to me. I think it also conflates anonymous comments with the larger issue of anonymity, only from the other side of the issue. It also feels a bit too much like the old newspaper model of top-down control. I think a key to the transformation of a news organization is letting go of the idea that everything is controlled, of accepting the value of becoming a gateway to information and a key node within a loose network of news sources. At a fundamental level, you give up control when you link out, when you admit that part of curation is linking to the story your rival has that you don’t, when you aggregate community Twitter feeds into Twitter lists. Insisting on real names isn’t the same as deciding whose letter gets printed, I know, but reader comments feel like they fit better on the loose links/curation/community axis than they do on the rigid sources/letters to the editor axis.
Something Ingram said made me nod my head vigorously: “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.” Agreed. But I bet Owens would agree too, without seeing that as in any way undermining his case. There are many potential commenters who see that anonymous commenters have turned a forum into a cesspool and immediately decide not to engage. We’ve all had that experience, and I think it’s a huge problem for news organizations. In those cases, anonymity has bred conditions that suppress the kind of interaction we all want. What good is a principle if it consistently leads to dismal practice?
But for some people, an insistence on real names will also suppress interaction. Diving into a forum as a newcomer can be intimidating even for people who are confident in their ability to write and argue, to say nothing of how it feels for people who don’t have that confidence. Anonymity or a pseudonym can take the fear out of that first step, letting people wade in. They feel like they can retreat if things don’t go well, and can go deeper if things do.
I use the name BklynJace to comment in some forums, and this debate made me think about why. Looking over what I’ve written under that name, it’s not because it’s a cover for crass behavior (with a lamentable exception or two). Rather, I’ve used that name on forums I follow but aren’t sure I want to commit to as a regular participant, with the full weight of my real identity. An insistence on real names would have made me less likely to post, and I’m sure that goes double for lots of other people. And as Ingram notes, there are very healthy communities — such as Metafilter and Slashdot — where the lack of real names hasn’t overriden the commenting mores in the least.
So there we are, chasing each other round and round. You can get anonymous comments too entangled with the larger issue of anonymity, whether you’re for them or against them. Anonymous comments can get in the way of maximizing interaction, but so can real names.
Which makes me wonder if the answer isn’t a middle ground.
First off, there is no one-size-fits-all rule: The commenting parameters for a locally focused small-business site wouldn’t work for Deadspin, or vice versa, and those parameters should be flexible from discussion to discussion. But generally speaking, I think we should encourage the use of real names, discourage pseudonyms, and discourage anonymous comments even more vigorously — without eliminating the latter two ways of posting. (It might be more practical to make this two categories instead of one.)
One sign of a healthy community is that it defends itself instead of leaving that to moderators, and I think that starts with giving participants tools to use in that defense. If you allow unverified comments, make the default that they’re hidden or shown in lighter type, while allowing readers to change those settings. (Gawker and the Wall Street Journal both offer variants of this.) Atop this foundation, let participants rate posts up or down, possibly allowing good but unverified stuff to break through the “verified” floor and bad but verified stuff to sink below it. Let participants report posts and either ignore or follow other participants.
My hope would be that those tools would allow a community to defend itself more easily and effectively, freeing moderators to deal with abuse reports and banning vandals. As a final check, I’d implement Lisa Williams‘ suggestion of moderating the first X comments from new users — few trolls can masquerade as decent sorts that long, particularly if their handiwork will be quickly removed afterwards anyway.
Perhaps I’ve fallen into the trap of equivocation, but I really feel like I see both sides. I think anonymity taxes moderators and breeds poor community experiences, yet I also think that real names run the risk of scaring away potentially valuable contributors. Perhaps there’s a technological solution that will let us explore the pluses and minuses from a better starting point.