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Research shows that if you remove anonymity, you won’t hear from most of your readers

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Many online publishers and journalists believe that there’s a simple solution to the problem of internet comments — the trolls, the flame-wars, and so on — and that is to require that people use “real” identities, usually by forcing them to login with Facebook or some other external service. But as I’ve argued a number of times, doing this only appears to solve the problem, while creating an even larger one: namely, that by removing the option to be anonymous, media companies will never hear from a majority of their readers.

A new survey conducted recently by the audience-engagement platform Livefyre appears to reinforce that conclusion. The company — which powers user-content features for sites run by AOL, CBS and Conde Nast — asked 1,300 web users between 18 and 65 if they have ever chosen to comment anonymously, and why.

Most of those surveyed said that they responded anonymously (or pseudonymously) because they didn’t want their opinions to impact their work or professional life by being attached to their real names, or when they wanted the point of their comment to be the focus rather than their identity or background. And close to 80 percent of those surveyed said that if a site forced them to login with their offline identity, they would choose not to comment at all.

Livefyre anonymity graphic resized

What that means in practice is that if a site like The Huffington Post or ESPN requires their users to login with Facebook or provide a “real” identity in some other way, they are likely shutting out as many as 80 percent of their readers. While at least some of these may be trolls or bad actors of some kind, it’s reasonable to assume that a significant number are loyal members of that site’s community, who may have something important or worthwhile to contribute. As David Williams, community manager for CNN Digital, said in an interview with Managing Communities:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Anonymous commenting isn’t the problem. The problem is when commenters feel anonymous. It is really important to let your community know that you’re listening and that you value what they have to say… If you don’t pay attention, people will misbehave until you are forced to pay attention.[/blockquote]

Anonymous comments have value

The Livefyre survey is a relatively small sampling of readers, and some of the conclusions — the fact that only 5 percent of readers login anonymously so they can bully others, for example — may be suspect, simply because few people are going to admit that they login specifically to torment other people.

That said, however, the survey results jibe with my experience managing comments and community for a large metropolitan newspaper in a previous life. When I asked our readers about whether they would comment if the paper implemented a registration system that required a verifiable identity, a large number said they never would — and they said that their desire for anonymity was a result of wanting to take part in discussions about contentious issues like religious freedom, sexual identity and the Middle East: In other words, important topics where their views might impact their jobs or their personal life in some way.

Livefyre anonymity graphic large

As Livefyre points out, there are a number of ways that sites can cut down on bad behavior, including pre-moderation. But the best way — as long-time blogger Anil Dash pointed out in a post in 2011 — is to actually engage in the comments with members of your reader community, and even set up ways for them to help you moderate. Some new-media sites such as the crowdfunded De Correspondent in the Netherlands see their commenters as partners rather than antagonists, or use tools like Gawker’s Kinja platform to make it easier for readers to become contributing members of the community.

The bottom line is that by requiring real names, sites may decrease the potential for bad behavior, but they also significantly decrease the likelihood that many of their readers will comment. Some may see this as a benefit — fewer comments to moderate — but it is also a risk, especially when engagement with a community of readers could mean the difference between life and death for a media outlet.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Moodboard

16 Responses to “Research shows that if you remove anonymity, you won’t hear from most of your readers”

  1. Anonymous Joe from North East US, No, not that far North!

    I think…
    Sometimes anon comments can be bad or trollish. But what about those people who are masters of the field and they are commenting and use a anon profile to protect their professional life?

    But then I also think that people should be bold enough to use “real identities” in certain cases, but not by forcing them to login with their Facebook or Twitter account because who knows what connections will be made or where that info will end up?

    Oh and if I was using my real name to comment it would go something like this;

    I think…
    _____________where that info will end up?

  2. Catherine

    Some time ago, Netflix breathlessly announced that I could now share all my movie rentals with my Facebook friends. Who thought that was a good idea? When HuffPost required that I log in with Facebook to comment, I stopped commenting. Now, when I go on HuffPost, I often look for comments and discover there are none. I LIKE comments. They reveal a cross-section of what my fellow human beings are thinking. I also don’t mind the trolls, although I don’t bother reading them. And I can tell in the first five words if someone is a troll.

  3. Whitacker

    1) Comments are opinions. People are allowed to express their opinions.
    2) If you don’t like a comment, then ignore it. Move on.
    3) If you can’t handle criticism, then stop doing what you’re doing and focus on something else. No one is perfect, so be thankful someone feels insecure enough to try to bash on you.
    4) This is my opinion. You don’t have to like it, but it’s what I believe. Deal with it. If you’re that paranoid to believe someone is likely to hunt you down for a comment you’ve made, then don’t post comments. Problem solved.

  4. I could not agree with this article more. I have stopped commenting on all sites that use Facebook comments, and I am generally interested in commenting relevant material to the article and engaging as presumably the publishers’ desire.

  5. Tiddlywink

    Anyone who argues that real identies should be required for online comments is incredibly privileged. Try commenting as a women or a member of an ethnic “minority” and see what kinds of reactions you get. I have had personal experience of being ignored and mocked in *professional* online fora when contributing under my real name; when I change to a handle that’s not easily stereotyped, *the exact same viewpoints* are taken seriously.

  6. Charlie Bucket

    I’m commenting as a guest so that shows you how I approach a situation like this: as an industry expert, I still don’t want this comment connected with my FB identity, partially because I don’t know the ramifications — how does FB and the data stream connect this comment with me? Where else does this surface? I have no idea, so I select to be anonymous. That said, long experience in user moderation tells me there are two agendas to comments: release of frustration and desire to genuinely contribute to dialogue. Majority of comments from trolls originate with desire simply to express someone’s personal frustration in life. If that’s your intent, my feeling is your participation is worthless, and please go punch a wall. If intent is thoughtful response to situation, then you should log in with identity. However as mentioned, I’m not doing that here. So whats the solution? Maybe something like virtual online identity similar to virtual credit card numbers you can get from MasterCard; it’s a legitimate identity linked to your real self, just not you enough to expose you. Yes it would take some time to create that virtual ID, but like the TSA rapid line at airports, if you’re sincere, you’ll take the front-load time to do it, then you can participate honestly and not expose your FB or other ID. And personally I think those are the only people who’s opinions are worthwhile. If you just want to vent, it is not useful or helpful to anyone.

  7. Jesus Hussein Christ

    Forget real names. Just charge each yahoo 10 cents to comment. This will surely shut up 99% of the pedestrians who has no business commenting any way. I use Yelp purely for store hours. Nothing else.

  8. Christopher Sessums

    I think more research (qualitative, quantitative, longitudinal) is needed to make your case. Given the numbers of outlets on which people of all ages and interests can post, it’s hard to accept your findings as valid.

  9. Will White

    Totally disagree. There are a couple of important things to think about here.
    1. What is the volume of worthwhile comments currently?
    2. How important is the information from users unwilling to use their name?
    3. Are there no other channels for someone with valuable information to provide their tip to the author anonymously?

    I look at registered only comment sites and no comment sites and find a lot of reader value add … Andrew Sullivan’s Dish is a perfect example. Tons of really great reader feedback, no comments.

    Most sites I’ve looked at with anonymous commenting are bogged down with a ridiculous volume of garbage, so the few comments that are interesting or provide new information are so buried as to be unreachable … and so lost to most users.

    Comments are frequently clogged with bots and users with an agenda that you can’t identify. This creates subterfuge in any number of areas from politics to technology and business. Amazon has been clogged with lots of protest reviews … there are whole businesses dedicated to providing positive comments to yelp reviewed business … its endless.

    Lastly, there is a counter incentive to registered comments … user reputation. Those users commenting the most and providing the most value will be incentivized by building their reputation among authors, editors and readers.

    I say get rid of anonymous comments … and get rid of the trolls and comment bots that clog the system.

    • Gary Lowe

      I totally agree with Will. Much like polling, you don’t need to hear from everyone in order to understand the thoughts of your user base. There may be some nuggets buried in a mountain of comments, but it’s unlikely that nugget will ever be surfaced or considered. When I see a New York times article with 700 comments, the first thing I do is sort by the ones that readers have recommended. Those comments are likely some of the earliest ones that have been voted up. In essence, I’m only reading a small number of comments on any article.

    • brandine

      You are ignoring the article’s point. If 80% of your site’s visitors who would like to comment are being restrained from doing so by a “real names only” policy, that’s a problem worth considering. Giving one’s personal information out on the internet along with one’s opinion is a recipe for mischief and/or embarrassment that most people obviously would prefer to avoid.

    • Yeah, that’s easy to say when your name is William White. There are over 11,000 William Whites in the US white pages and at least 3 wikipedia entries. So, you can remain anonymous even while giving your name. Likewise, if you are one of the 500+ Gary Lowe’s. Why no profile picture, middle initial, or residence to let people know which one you are, if you so dislike anonymous comments?

      In my case, I can find only one other person in the US with my name, so anything I say is easily attached to me.

  10. Agree 100%. I generally wouldn’t mind if people reading the site saw my real name, but the fact that anyone can type my name into a search engine a year from now and dredge up all of my opinions prevents me from ever using my real name. Sites could help solve this problem by presenting user names in Captcha format. There would still be an issue of trust, that once you have given your name to a site they may change their terms of use, so these would need be user submitted captchas with no real name ever provided. But then you have the hassle of maintaining separate registrations for every site, so Facebook should solve this problem by offering a “captcha ID only,” where I could login to a site with Facebook, but they would only provide a captcha version of my ID, uniquely, but consistently, generated for each site.

    • Agree 100%. In fact, I wouldn’t be making this comment if gigaom didn’t have the guest option. Even with “anonymity” I still moderate myself because the Internet is forever.