In Defense of Anonymous Commenting?

April 23rd, 2009 7 Comments

Image by Natalie Maynor used under Creative Commons

Image by Natalie Maynor used under Creative Commons

If you read here, you probably know I’m against anonymous commenting and generally against anonymity online.

If you know me IRL, you’ll understand this is part of who I am.

To call me direct is accurate, if not an understatement in many cases. I’m blunt and unedited and not very good at pretending. I learned long ago that even when I don’t speak, my face speaks for me. So, I figured why not add words to it.

I’m also opposed to comment moderation both because it takes away instant gratification and because it makes the blog author a higher power.

So, when this item came across my Reader recently (h/t Slashdot), I had to bite.

The post’s author, Doug Feaver, served for many years as an editor at washingtonpost.com, and as an editor, was exposed to more than his share of anonymous commentary that would probably make me blush.

You should read the full post. It’s quite interesting. The snippet below reeled me in from Slashdot:

The subjects that have generated the most vitriol during my tenure in this role are race and immigration. . . . I am heartened by the fact that such comments do not go unchallenged by readers. In fact, comment strings are often self-correcting and provide informative exchanges.

Self-policing in online communities is one of the tenants of what I’ve preached internally, e.g. when people ask the inevitable “what if someone posts porn” question.

So, as much as I prefer people to be open about a) what they really think and b) who they are, Feaver’s experience says quite the opposite, i.e. many people won’t do both. So, if you really want someone’s opinion, you better give them the cloak of anonymity.

This makes good sense, even though I completely disagree, at least when it comes to me.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine died tragically in an accident. She rear-ended a truck on the highway while the truck was stopped. She was the only party injured.

I found out accidentally, just browsing headlines, and when I searched to find more news, I found the news item listed on the web sites of several local news outlets.

Enter anonymous commentary.

I couldn’t believe some of the comments. Suffice to say it was less than flattering. It seems obvious that she was at fault, and as the only victim, she paid the ultimate price. Even so, several commenters used the story as a way to belabor their agendas about distracted driving, despite the lack of evidence to support that claim.

Thankfully, people had begun the self-policing before I got there, and in this case, the argument wasn’t around right or wrong, but rather appropriateness and dignity.

Returning to Feaver’s point, bad things exist, but we shouldn’t hide from them or pretend they don’t exist.

The explosion of Twitter has underlined this point because what is Twitter, if not anonymous commentary?

Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not require you to disclose your name or be a real person even. So, people can tweet at will, saying whatever they choose to whomever they choose. Will the community self-police?

That remains to be seen. I’ve seen a couple episodes resolved that way, mostly by out-shouting the person,which is effective enough.

No, I’m not going to allow anonymous commentary here. I doubt much of what I blog would cause much need for that anyway, and rest assured, I won’t moderate comments. Too much work. I have been pretty harsh on spam comments lately. So, if your comment never shows up, it got flagged as spam. Just use the Contact page to let me know.

So, what do you think about anonymous commentary and a self-policing community.

Interesting stuff, right?


Possibly Related Posts

7 Responses to “In Defense of Anonymous Commenting?”

  1. John E. Bredehoft (Empoprises) Says:

    As someone who posted the majority of his comments over a ten-year period under a pseudonym, I have a somewhat different view of anonymous comments. (I recognize that pseudonymity is not necessarily equivalent to anonymity.) However, we are in agreement on moderation.

    My blogs don't get huge amounts of traffic, but the occasional post does generate some traffic. In the last several years, I can only recall one time in which I deleted a comment (although there may have been one or two others over the years). Ironically, the deletion was not because of the substance of the comment, but because of the name that the commenter chose to use for his/her comment. My post concerned a rather prominent member of the social media community, and the comment was attributed to…well, let's just say it was attributed to a body part of the subject of the post. In my view, that crossed a line.

  2. jpiwowar Says:

    I think it depends on the nature of the forum. A news organization is probably just as likely to want readers' reactions as their thoughts, and requiring registration, or even filling out a username/contact field, may impede the former. A blog that targets a particular audience, however, benefits more from a sense of community, and that can be reinforced by requiring the small commitment of self-identification. Besides, conversations between “Anonymous #2 @9AM” and “Anonymous #4 @10AM” are annoying to follow. ;-) Excluding thoughtful (yeah, I know, roflcopters) people who only want to drop anonymous comments is probably not a big loss, overall. And, as John B. mentions, pseudonymity is always an option.

    From a participant's perspective, I prefer to “own” my comments whenever possible, and I tend to apply a more selective mental filter to anonymous comments. Of course, lack of anonymity is no guarantee of civility; lots of fora have their loud-n-proud named trolls, erm, self-appointed contrarians. And the forum self-policing seems to happen no matter what. Starving trolls is clearly harder to do the more that one cares about the issue at hand.

    One thing's for sure: comment moderation can't scale. After almost a year, I've finally turned off moderation on my blog, because Askimet has only let through about 2 of hundreds of spam comments. Not that I have a huge volume of real comments to deal with; but approving even an occasional legit comment from my phone got to be pretty annoying.

  3. Jake Says:

    Pseudonymity is fine the way you did it, i.e. creating a persona and using it everywhere. More nom de plum than anonymous.

    Aside from the eight things meme, not much generates that kind of emotion here. Thankfully. I hope I don't have to make those calls in the future.

  4. Jake Says:

    Good points. Blogs do tend to be a bit nicer than forums, from my experience.

    I agree about owning comments, but our period of just trying out Disqus went long. And now it's pretty late in the game. I guess I could try reclaiming them, but that sounds like work.

    Same issue with comment moderation from the moderator side: too much work.

    I'm lazy.

  5. jpiwowar Says:

    Not knocking your choice to use Disqus. By “owning my comments,” I just meant that I make an effort to maintain consistent identity across commenting systems, via username, avatar, etc. That is, if I'm going to bother leaving a comment, I want to feel like I'm standing behind it somehow. I'm not worried about owning the *content* of the comment so much…if I have something that substantial to say, I'll write my own post. ;-)

    Still waiting for the magical ID-aggregator to appear (seems like a tough problem, so I suppose I'll be waiting a while). chi.mp and BackType are interesting to me in that respect, but not quite there somehow. And I wouldn't be the first to lament the provider:consumer ratio in OpenID…

  6. Jake Says:

    Got it. I'm hoping OpenID will get some wind in its sails when Facebook supports it. Not holding my breath tho, since Digg promised years ago to support it.

    I still agree though. I'd like to own the comments again. Fewer failure points, faster load times, etc. Then we could support OpenID too :)

  7. It’s Not Too Late to Spring Into Reading 5 New Blogs | Guilda Blog Says:

    [...] In Defense of Anonymous Commenting? [...]

Leave a Reply