Dear Arianna: Anonymity has value, and doing away with it won’t solve your commenting problem

62 Comments

According to statements made by Huffington Post (s aol) founder Arianna Huffington in Boston on Wednesday, the site plans to end anonymous comments next month, as my Gigaom colleague Barb Darrow has reported. Huffington said that she has decided there are too many “trolls” using the site who hide behind anonymity in order to make violent or offensive comments, and that she believes people should “stand up for what they say.”

Is anonymity really the problem with online comments? I don’t think so, and there is at least some evidence that supports my argument — but more than that, anonymity has real value and giving it up has serious consequences.

The Huffington Post founder suggested that her feelings about anonymity have been colored by recent rape and death threats against women in Britain, even though most of these — including a sustained attack on freelance journalist Caroline Criado-Perez that took place over a number of days — actually occurred on Twitter (which has repeatedly defended its users’ rights to remain anonymous, or at least pseudonymous). According to Huffington:

“Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are threats of rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”

Do we need a “grown-up internet?”

Arianna Huffington

Huffington’s views on comments — especially the part about using real identities being part of the “grown-up internet” — are very much in line with other arguments that have been made in the past about the dangers of anonymity, including former Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg’s comments in 2011 that anonymity on the internet “has to go away” because of online bullying and other bad behavior. Google executive Vic Gundotra made a similar argument when the company launched its Google+ social network and required the use of a “verified identity.”

The logical extension of this argument is to make online anonymity impossible, or even illegal. At least one U.S. legislator has tried to float a bill that would do exactly that: Illinois senator Ira Silverstein proposed that web users only be allowed to comment if they verify their identity online. But would this actually reduce the amount of trolling or flaming or offensive behavior in comments — or anywhere else? Unlikely.

Not only is this fairly obvious from seeing all kinds of abusive behavior occur on Facebook,, but some evidence has emerged that shows requiring real identities from online users actually accomplishes surprisingly little when it comes to changing trollish behavior: in 2007, South Korea mandated verified identities for all users of sites with more than 100,000 visitors, but scrapped the program in 2011 — because requiring real identities only reduced the amount of nasty comments by .09 percent.

Requiring real identity loses something

identity

The debate over anonymity and its value, both in comments and elsewhere on the internet, has been going on almost since the web was invented. I’ve tried to make the argument numerous times that there is real value in allowing anonymity, a case I also fought for when I was the social-media editor at a major Canadian newspaper, where I had to defend the use of anonymity almost daily.

For me, the question isn’t really whether requiring the use of verified identities or registration numbers or some other system might help reduce anonymous trolling — it’s what we would be giving up in return for that small improvement. As a number of other defenders of anonymity have pointed out, there are valuable things we can learn from commenters that they would never contribute if they had to attach their real identity to it. Comments about spousal abuse, sexual identity, religious persecution — the list goes on.

Is a modest decline in trolling worth giving all of that up? And it’s not just those kinds of comments — a recent survey by comment-software company Disqus found that pseudonymous comments provided some of the most value across a fairly huge number of sites using the company’s software.

Why not try to engage instead?

One of the last times this debate came up, Anil Dash made what I thought was a persuasive argument that if your site has too many trolls, that is your fault for not engaging more with your readers and setting the tone for your comments. Obviously engaging with millions of commenters every day — which is what the Huffington Post routinely gets — is virtually impossible, which is why the site has 40 moderators and a suite of algorithms to handle the flood. So why not try to look at comments differently?

The New York Times has made at least a small effort to improve its comments, by promoting some readers to ** status and allowing them to comment without moderation, and by highlighting some comments alongside its stories instead of leaving them all at the bottom. Both of these steps are a significant incentive for good behavior. Gawker Media gives its commenters their own blogs, and lets them contribute their own stories — something that should be appealing to a site like Huffington Post, which got its start by allowing almost anyone to blog for free. Why not create tiers of commenting to encourage better input?

Do we encourage trolls and offensive behavior when we allow people to contribute anonymously? Perhaps. But free speech comes with a price, and I think we lose something significant when we start requiring people to verify their identities before we listen to what they have to say. If that’s what is required for a “grown-up internet” then I would like to stick with the one we have.

In closing, here’s a TED talk from Christopher “Moot” Poole, the founder of 4chan, about the benefits of anonymity.

[ted id=874]

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Andrea Michele Pasquiado

62 Comments

fake name

Anyone posting political comment under their real name will definitely be attacked in real life by someone who doesn’t agree with their views. A person is inviting trouble to say what they really think under their real name. No one would be that stupid. Comments section will dwindle to nothing. It’s a shame… I’ve learned a lot from the comments.

Joan Sutton

Suppose someone doesn’t like my comment and, knowing my true identity, becomes my stalker?

Michael McWatters

Addressing a few of your points:

I don’t think this is a free speech issue; these are private sites. And, as you note, there is always Twitter for those so motivated (and outraged) but desirous of anonymity. They may voice their complaints in the form of a tweet.

I can’t tell if you’re in favor of moderation or not. If you’re okay with moderation, doesn’t that contradict your free speech argument?

You make the oft-heard argument that anonymity allows some who might not comment the ability to comment. I often wonder, though, how many people with great comments don’t participate because they’re simply unwilling to be attacked by anonymous trolls. In other words, anonymity exposes a lot more people to hate than it probably protects.

You seem to be lumping snark / insults in with hate speech and threats. These are very different. While getting rid of anonymity might not improve quality or reduce snark, it will likely reduce threats and hate speech. If not, then at least it will make it easier to track down people who threaten others online.

That said, I do agree with you on one key premise: I’m not convinced the removal of anonymity will actually improve the quality of comments on most websites. On the other hand, sites that have no comments or heavily moderate their comments are quickly becoming my favorite sites.

Dave3459

HuffPo has created an incredibly sticky social media platform. I’m transfixed. Much like Facebook, I keep going back to see who “likes” what I said and what they have replied to it. It’s addictive.

Huffington is throwing that all away. At Facebook the power is the real identity. At HuffPo it will be the end of the magic they have now. Sure, there will still be comments, only the trolls won’t go away. These people stand firmly in their delusional convictions and will be happy to use their real names.

Arriana, I come to HuffPo to post political content because I won’t do it at at Facebook. Feelings get hurt. Friends get unfriended. No one wants to hear it.

You’re making a big mistake. But you will see that as your page views plummet, users spend a fraction of the time on the site and revenues go down.

Prediction: after my worst predictions come true, they will realized what they did and reverse it.

Hang in there, HuffPosters.

delawarediner

My question is this: your case for anonymity says that we can learn things from anonymous posters. Who is doing this research? Is it reasonable to assume that commenting on a news story actually accomplishes anything? I think not. People who troll are commenting as much on the futility of adding one’s drop of opinion to the ocean of data as they are responding to the writer. If anything, all a publisher learns from comments is what stories generate more views and what issues generate more revenue for advertisers. Perhaps this is a jaded view, but writers are being paid to putt their views and opinions out on a free, public forum accessible to millions. If those writers can’t handle the inevitable mud-slinging from dissenters, perhaps this is a good time to reevaluate their career choice. All Huffington is accomplishing is quieting the few trolls too lazy to circumvent the requirement by setting up a bogus email account with which to “verify,” and worse, issuing a challenge to those with already-malicious intent.

billycripe

Will HuffPo switch and require all their story sources to be named as well? Will they now advocate to compel writers to name their sources or are some authors more equal than others?

Ranjan Roy

Instead of just engaging, I think it’s important that Arianna look at the type of content HuffPo publishes and what it encourages. If you publish sensationalist, pageview hungry pieces, you’ll attract ugly commenting, that’s just the nature of the beast. If you publish thoughtful articles, chances are you’ll encourage better commentary.

She should stop blaming anonymity and blame herself and the company culture for creating a product that celebrates ugly comments. The articles they publish themselves would often be considered “trolling” by normal standards.

Dave

As long as people can be anonymous, they can scrutinize powerful people (like A. Huffington) without fear of retribution.

Ask Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden, if it’s so great that powerful people know who they are.

sameyeis

Comments are worthless. I do not care what anonymous or Mike from East Bumduck thinks. Let them argue with each other in a virtual cave or Fox News. I try to make intelligent choices about how I consume information, and know-nothing message board addicts just get in the way. Intelligent voices are quickly buried by trolls and the uninformed.

ttocs

If all the anonymous comments were in line with, and supported her views, she’d be fine with it. The sanctimonious hate to be disagreed with. Should we also outlaw the silly Vendetta masks the Occupy kids wear?

Bruce

Exactly how do they plan to verify your true identity? Are you going to have to give them your credit card number?

JosephBloughs

My first thought is that, at least in the U.S., any legislation mandating this wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. If that doesn’t infringe on a person’s right to freedom of speech, nothing does.

Zinc

Here’s another example– what about entering a discussion forum for people with a medical condition that you would not want your insurance company to be scanning looking for justifications for raising rates? What about responses to a Huffpost article by rape victims willing to talk about their experience as long as no one knows who they are. Those small minds that think they have nothing to hide, do have something to hide that they in fact have just revealed, and that is a serious lack of insight.

Bruno Boutot

It’s incredible that we are still having this conversation. We have had exactly the same one two years ago and the basic answers were already known: http://modadmin.boutotcom.com/2010/03/22/anonymity-and-identity-in-newsmedia/

This debate still exists only because news media continue to ignore all the lessons learned during the past 25 years (25!) in online communities.

The obstinate fixation on “comments” is at the root of the misunderstanding: news media and marketing professionals can’t imagine any other role for their readers than “commenters”. The pros are sending media or marketing “products” to readers who can only react to the product with another product: the infamous “comment”.

But Web communities have shown us again and again that conversations on the Web are not about “products” but about people. Communities don’t do products: they welcome people. They give each member a personal page where their contributions add up. It’s never about the name (real or pseudonymous): it’s about the identity that is built over time through contributions to the community.

So it’s not about comments: it’s about real people with a stable identity. It’s not about commenters, it’s about contributors, it’s about members.

Well known caveat: only 10% to 20% of our readers will become contributors. So be it: if you have 100 000 or 1 million readers, the number of contributors is huge. And Mathew can have it both ways: you can have at the same time on the same site known members and anonymous users who don’t have a stable identity. But they are not the same and their difference is not about real identity: it’s who the site owner THINK they are.

Anil Dash was right all along: if the comments stink on your site, it’s your fault.

streever

This is an opinion piece masquerading as facts and research.

Science when applied to social behavior is a complex and difficult subject. In general, journalists need to stop hiding behind it in expressing their point of view.

When you reference South Korea, what you’re missing is that the impact may have been small because they are targeting–per the article you posted–146 total websites. In addition, you’ve ignored the other reason they scrapped their rule, which is that they have no say over what users do on international based sites.

Sorry, but while this may be an opinion you hold, suggesting that America wouldn’t have obtained our freedom from Great Britain and poorly citing a governmental decision made in South Korea as if it were a scientific study does not convince me that your opinion has merit.

Rebecca Searles

It strikes me as awkward though, that the video at the bottom in defense of anonymity is by 4 chan’s founder, when 4 chan is literally like the gutter of the internet. He even admits to how it cannot be a commercial success because of the amount of offensive content on it.

paul

People need to comment like they are being watched and that their name will be associated with the comments. Having trolls spout non-sense, only degrades the discussions and the value of the conversation. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, then you shouldn’t be allowed to spout it off on the internet, because nobody knows who you are.

People need to be responsible for their comments and having anonymity is not helpful in the end. It only provokes people to say things that are more ignorant than anything, but who cares if no one knows them…

PhoenixRising

Where’s your data to support those contentions? Oh, right–there are no data suggesting that requiring ‘real ID’ in comments forums enhances the quality of the debate or limits nonsense.

Some of the most vile, bigoted and nasty comments you’ll find anywhere are the Facebook comments under any news story. These are proud trolls, man! They think they’re clever, and correct.

K MacGregor

What about things you would say to someone’s face, but not to EVERYONE IN THE WORLD’s face? For example, I would probably happily debate many things with a stranger, whether in person or online, that I would not debate with my parents, my boss or my ex-boyfriend, all of whom are easily able to monitor that conversation online if your real name is used. Imagine you’re having that conversation with the people on the comments board in person – but you’re not alone. Every single person you’ve ever met or ever will meet is standing there watching and listening to every word, and recording the whole thing so they can go back and access it again at their leisure. Suddenly you’re having to watch what you say in even the most benign of conversations, nevermind conversations about private, personal things or controversial topics. For example, if you want to discuss problems with your sex life with others who are having the same problems on a medical forum, you had better also be OK discussing the same things with your boss, your parents, your grandma, your children still to be born (because nothing ever really goes away on the internet), your next partner you haven’t met yet, that guy down the hall at work who hates you, and your neighbour across the street.

Dennis D. McDonald

I say, try both approaches to see which one is better. Anonynous comments are the practice now, why not try something else for a while. There are costs and benefits associated with each approach. I, for example, have difficulty debating with someone who assiduously refuses to reveal his or her identity. Maybe that’s old fashioned, but I engage online to engage with people, not avatars. But I admit there are arguments for anonymity but there are also arguments for openness. So run a test and openly evaluate the results.

Terry Heaton

I’ve been arguing for years (but nobody listens, sigh) that comments to a media property are, in fact, a franchise for that company, and an important one at that. I have zero problem with curating comments by removing those that offend, and the reason people don’t is simply liability. The lawyers have told us that editing comments in any way makes them a part of our product, and therefore, we’re liable. So what? Listening is the new skill that media companies need. Every newsroom monitors police scanners, because they bring “news” into the shop. Why not apply the same logic to something so obvious as feedback from viewers, readers, followers and fans? Call me a nut, but I believe that 21st Century news organizations owe it to themselves and their “audiences” to monitor, curate and report about the feedback they get, whether it’s via their website, Twitter, Facebook or any other form of “media.” The best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them by removing them. To simply ban all anonymous comments, however, is lazy, and that’s being kind.

James Harradence

My wife runs a large business unit (multi $B revs).

She does not & should not (IMO) post her actual name on say, Trip Advisor, for lots of reasons.

John Nemesh

I always troll with my real name. I have nothing to hide from the internet, and I figure any illusion of anonymity is quickly shattered when push comes to shove anyway.

sgodin

Mathew, the forces for anonymous are running out of time. For almost two decades, the internet has been anonymous friendly, and what has come of it?

What value has emerged from 4chan? Which anonymous reviews on Amazon actually helped people find better books or movies?

Has there ever been a truly anonymous reporting of spousal abuse? How could that be?

You have credibility, Mathew, precisely because we know who you are and what you’ve done in the past. The drive-by dispenser of snark, on the other hand, has no reputation and nothing much to lose.

Last question: if you ran a bank, would you willingly do business with a customer wearing a mask?

Mathew Ingram

I don’t know about you, but I get value from anonymous — or pseudonymous — reviews on sites like Amazon and IMDB all the time. And while 4chan is an advertisement for debauchery much of the time, even it has produced value for society at times, as Chris Poole describes in the video I embedded.

As for spousal abuse, I’m not talking about reporting of the actual act, but insight into the effects on a person’s life — the same with religious persecution and sexual identity. I have seen this happen first hand at the newspaper I worked for, and people told me they never would have made such comments without anonymity. That has real value.

Your banking question is largely irrelevant — we are talking about discussion forums, not lending people money. The criteria are different, and with good reason.

Nick Braak

Inquiring minds might ask if the poster is indeed the real Seth Godin?

I pose the question because for one the writing style seems different.

Secondly Seth Godin doesn’t often post comments. I’d like to say never posts but I could be mistaken.

Finally the use of 4Chan as a prime example? Hmmm……

Nick Braak

Ha, probably another hacked account, or am I just overly suspicious :-)

I didn’t watch the video first time around, so I now understand the 4Chan angle. Sorry about that.

Oh, scrolling down I see another skeptic. I can see why, in that even though I used my twitter account to authenticate (@highwick) there are no links for the avatars so we can’t see what you can from the backend.

Lili Balfour

I think both arguments have valid points. Should people be allowed to make violent threats anonymously? No. Should people be able to express themselves and not feel vulnerable? Absolutely.

Sorry, it sounds unreasonable, but we need to monitor the Internet. It’s not realistic to ask people to use their real identities. The best alternative is to require people to act like human beings. The anonymous trolls who destroyed the young boy’s memorial on Facebook should never have gotten away with that. Is it too much to ask Facebook to monitor that type of behavior? They seem fully equipped to monitor women breast feeding babies.

Lili Balfour

btw – I did not need to use a real email address to comment. :)

Sarah Lang

The bank analogy is pretty weak…

That aside. I would like to point out two things:

First, real identities have not stopped bullying and harassment in schools or in the workplace. Why do people think it will stop it online?

Second, the Internet is an amazing community for people who cannot find like-minded individuals within their physical community. These people can feel excluded by their community for political views, personal beliefs or just really being into video games. If these people already feel ostracized, why would outing them online — the only place where their anonymity affords them the luxury of “being themselves” — be a good thing?

Jillian C. York

Hmm. Well:

-There has been truly excellent anonymous reporting from Syria, from Egypt, and from Tunisia. Also, from Bangladesh, from Russia, and from Cuba. But hey, if it doesn’t occur in America, it doesn’t matter, right?

-Furthermore, as an outspoken woman on the Internet, let me tell you: The WORST harassment I have ever received came from people whose names and photographs accompanied their horrific comments. Hatred. Rape threats. All identifiable.

-When I was a younger woman figuring out parts of my identity, the ability to discuss things anonymously on the Internet—on message boards, chat rooms, and yes, sometimes in comments—was incredibly helpful. It allowed me to form my identity without risking the permanence of some of the stupider things I’m sure I said. That’s been hugely valuable to me.

But please, carry on with your white male privilege.

Simon Cohen

Was that last line really necessary? If you think being white and male protects you from hate on the internet, that just means you haven’t seen it all. Privilege is relative and should never be used as tool to shut down discourse or to critique the commenter.

Tetracycloide

Commenters should never be called out on their privilege? How do you assail the position “let them eat cake” if you’re never allowed to use the observation of privilege as a tool to critique the commenter? Calling it out is the only way to assail it because that’s the only rational response to an argument that completely ignores the circumstances of others.

sam

What has become of it? It has become the greatest thing human kind has ever created.
4chan has done some pretty amusing things, many reviews on Amazon use usernames, and they’re just as good as those of people with ‘real names’. Whether a comment uses a real name or not it’s pretty meaningless to other users.

Credibility has little to with wether that’s his real name though. For all I know that’s a fake name and a fake picture. You see him as credible because of what he has done in the past, if he had gone with “cheeseduck25” the entire time nothing would be different.

You go by “sgodin”, that tells me absolutely nothing. Your image looks like Seth Godin the author born July 10, 1960. But you have no credibility here, because anyone could post as Seth Godin. Mathew’s credibility here comes from being recognised by this site as being him.

Banks do business with nameless and faceless organisations, shell companies and other legal constructions that make the person more anonymous than many internet users are all the time.

Besides the philosophical standpoints it’s completely unenforceable.

Ro Gupta

I’m biased because I’m with Disqus — (although we could easily go to real-name identifies only if we thought we should) — and I have a lot of respect for your thinking, but i don’t think your examples are making your case well at all. What does running a bank have to do with hosting a comment discussion on the web? You really think only real name reviews on Amazon are the ones that matter?

Perhaps what’s happening here…as we often see happen…is that “anonymous” and “pseudonymous” are being treated the same when in fact they are very different. Reputation and accountability aren’t exclusive to real names.

Or maybe this isn’t really Seth commenting? His own company, Squidoo, doesn’t seem to require real names: http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/d-artist.

Anil Dash

I’ve found enormous value in conversations with, and comments from, pseudonymous commenters, who would also be banned under this regime.

Even if we granted Seth’s premise that somehow anonymity produces bad behavior, this doesn’t do anything to prevent bad behavior under real names.

Ro Gupta

Out of curiosity, why then do you use Facebook Comments on your blog (if this is real Anil :)?

IS

I have no reason, on the basis of other stuff you’ve written, Seth, to doubt your good intentions, but let’s point out the obvious: A marketer making the case for the reduction of online anonymity, along with ad-driven companies like Facebook, Google, and HuffPo (don’t you think they’d love to have real identities to sell to advertisers?) simply cannot be taken without a healthy dose of skepticism.

But first, the substance — the idea that real identities will actually be a cure for what ails the web … If we’re cherry-picking examples (like 4chan) to make our cases, let’s look at the comments pages on the Wall Street Journal Online, where real identities are widely used, and where, on any given day, you’re likely to encounter some of the most conspiracy-theorist/racist/nativist diatribes around. Tell me, exactly, how real identity helps there?

The Web is a messy place. Always has been. When you ask “What has come of [anonymity]?” you seem to be suggesting that, somehow, the Web has become a cesspool, and that anonymity is its root cause. That if we only adhere to real identity, somehow the 4chans will go away, everyone will be well behaved, and the Web, as a whole, will become some more productive, more morally defensible place. What a fanciful idea. You know, we have an analog. It’s called the physical world, and last I checked, people have been doing extraordinarily stupid, unkind, violent things for millennia. Why should we view the Web any differently?

Now, real identity is great for marketers. This whole multi-screen, on-demand, fragmented attention world is really difficult for you guys to master. But you know what? It’s not our responsibility to make your jobs easier. It’s your job to make us pay attention. “Real identities” don’t serve a people problem. They serve a marketing problem and, while I have no disdain at all for markers, you’re not bound to find a whole lot of sympathy on that one.

Snertly

If the Huffington Post were to take the steps necessary to actually eliminate pseudonyms, they would simultaneously block and discourage the majority of their site visitors from ever coming back.

If they go at it half-assed, they’ll just block the more obvious sorts of “unreal” names which will keep the ill will focused in that part of the Huffpo readership that most wants to engage with the site.

In fifteen years, “What’s your ‘real’ name?” will replace the long standing “Keep off my lawn!” as the favored bon mot of the elderly.

brian_carnell

I used to run a website that had a popular forum in which medical researchers and academics used to post pseudonymously. They did so because they feared posting using their real names would have resulted in both virtual and real world harassment from animal rights activists.

Eliminating anonymity would reduce (maybe) some kinds of harassment, but also enable other kinds of harassment.

Valentine North

It’s more than that. People have varied opinions on lots of things. You might have some views on one subject, but quite different from your bosses. We don’t live in a fair world, and if those bosses see your point of view on the internet, odds are you’ll lose your job, or worse.
I’m not talking about trolls, I’m talking about sensitive subjects, like abortion, gay marriage, political leaning and so on.
Oh, and who the hell are they to decide who trolls are? I’ve seen some people on the internet who don’t understand the concept of sarcasm, or simply because they don’t agree with your views just mod down your comments.
I don’t know what their game is, but it’s got nothing to do with trolling.

Snertly

Thank you, though in fairness, I must admit that I am somewhat biased in favor of pseudonyms and anonymous identities.

Luca Menato

I agree with La Huffington … to a point. I agree that expensive human monitoring is wasted on people who are not prepared to be themselves. And I agree that it is hard enough to secure the rights of real people, without having to worry about the “free speech” issues of avatars. Nonetheless, I would allow anonymous comments, but would subject these users to the decision of unfeeling digital arbiters: fall foul of the algorythm and the account is closed, no questions asked. Call it a Platonic answer: allow two levels of digital citizenship, and let the robots deal with the unreal people.

Snertly

What if determining who’s “real” becomes too hard? Can we separate the ‘full-valued’ citizens from the ‘partial-value’ citizens by some easier to screen for characteristic? How about skin color? That’s pretty easy to determine and there’s a long history associated with discriminating on the basis of that characteristic.

Whip up an algorithm and no individual would have to be responsible for any decisions reached by this method. Rather like Obama did with The Disposition Matrix for determining drone assassination targets.

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