The value of having reader comments on news stories has taken a bit of a beating, with sites like Re/code and Reuters being the latest to do away with them because they are seen as a troll-filled wasteland. Many blame this lack of civility on the fact that commenters often use pseudonyms, but a recent study by Disqus — which makes a commenting platform used by a number of blogs and news sites — indicates that for most readers, a comment is not seen as any less trustworthy just because the poster uses a pseudonym.
Disqus conducted the survey in October and November of this year, and asked over a thousand internet users who regularly read and/or post comments what they thought of the use of pseudonyms, and how that affected the way they perceived comments. They also compared those responses to the answers given by a similarly-sized group of regular Disqus commenters.
According to the company, 70 percent of those who actively used pseudonyms themselves said that privacy was the main reason for their decision — a desire to keep their identity hidden because they either didn’t want others to contact or harass them, didn’t want to be exposed to identity theft, or didn’t want their views on “touchy” subjects such as politics to follow them around the internet. They said pseudonyms allowed them to be more open, honest and “expressive” than if they had to use a real name.
Obviously, what some commenters see as being open and honest on touchy subjects could be seen by others as trolling or flaming. But as I’ve tried to point out a number of times, the kinds of commentary that come with anonymity or pseudonymity can be very beneficial — in the sense that they allow us to see things from the viewpoint of someone who might never share their opinion if they were forced to use a real name. Just think of sexual abuse stories, or religious debates, or articles about the activities of a foreign government.
The Disqus survey noted that many of those who read comments but never post them said the use of a pseudonym meant that a commenter was more likely to be rude, but that those who comment routinely disagreed with this assumption. And a majority of both groups said that a pseudonym didn’t affect their perception of the trustworthiness of the commenter — in other words, comments posted under pseudonyms were seen as being no more or less trustworthy than those posted with a real name (or at least what commenters believed was a real name).
Clearly Disqus has a vested interest in the results of this survey, since having the ability to use pseudonyms through the company’s commenting platform probably keeps the number of comments higher than it would be otherwise, and thereby benefits Disqus. But I think there is social value to pseudonymous comments, and this study seems to show that many readers and commenters believe that too — even if some media companies disagree.