Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anonymity and comments

Fred Wilson has a good post up about how he approaches comments at his blog, A VC. The post was inspired by this weekend's piece in the New York Times about news sites moving away from anonymous comments, and gives a great overview from someone whose blog regularly receives 100+ comments per day.

Anonymous comments can often be a royal pain, distracting legitimate discussion (at best) and offending or harassing other participants (at worst). Yet I remain certain that anonymity (and/or pseudonymity) is a critical element of a functioning community. Anonymity was itself a building block of our democracy (see the Federalist Papers), and is, in the US at least, a recognized First Amendment right.

But this is hardly a new discussion. Fifteen years ago, law professor Tom Bell wrote in Wired why this issue is so important:
Who benefits from digital anonymity? Whistle-blowers, victims of abuse, and troubled people seeking counseling. Political insiders, the politically incorrect, and insurrectionists. Gays, lesbians, and bored straights. Bad poets. People trying the fit of another skin. Virtually everyone. You.You deserve at least as much anonymity on the Net as you have when you cast a vote, post an anonymous tract, or buy a newspaper from a coin-operated rack.
Fred wants to see community-driven policing through game mechanics, which I think is a great way to approach this where anonymity produces unwanted behavior:
We need to introduce game mechanics into commenting systems and I think Disqus can and will be at the forefront of this effort. Game mechanics will reward the kind of behavior the community wants and will punish the kind of behavior the community does not want. The anonymous commenter who has valuable information but can't publish in their own name will be rewarded. The anonymous commenter who leaves a hostile name calling piece of crap will be punished. And the comment thread and community will be better off for it.
In fact, that exact approach (in an albeit low-tech way) was what happened on the Dean campaign back in '03. I helped the campaign (irony alert!) switch off of Blogger on to Movable Type, in part because MT natively supported comments, while at the time Blogger didn't. We turned comments on, and predictably, had to deal with some comment trolls - people not interested in legitimate debate, just interested in slinging arrows, insulting people and generally trying to interfere with the operation of the blog.

To the campaign's credit, the response was not to disable comments. Matt, Trippi, Zephyr, Nicco, Garrett, Clay and the rest of the crew knew that the comments were the lifeblood of the blog, that over time they'd bind the campaign's supporters to the campaign and themselves in a way that curated interactions would never do. While we on the tech side tried to come up with a more elegant solution for trolls, the commenters themselves solved the problem over a weekend: they turned it into a game.

A handful of commenters pledged to each other that each time a troll showed up, they'd donate $10 to the Dean campaign. The campaign's site let anyone set up their own fundraising page, so eventually they had their own "troll bat" (long story, but the campaign used a baseball bat as their fundraising "thermometer" image)... and each time a troll showed up, these supporters chipped in. The bat raised several hundred dollars in the first weekend.

Then others in the comments caught on, and before long, one troll could instantly raise $1,000 or more for the Dean campaign. Trolls didn't vanish completely, but they never became the horrific problem that they could have been: the community figured out in its own clever way how to sufficiently penalize trolls so that the negative impact of their trolling was great enough to discourage the behavior in the first place.

Back to the Times piece. Just because a generation is, as Arianna Huffington claims, growing up without as much need for anonymity, doesn't mean that anonymity is any less important. Robert Cringely, writing last year in InfoWorld about the importance of protecting anonymity online had this to say:
So this is why anonymity is important: Not so people can make nasty comments about anyone else just because they feel like it, but to help the little guys who are trying to serve the public and don't have the resources to protect themselves against corporate or government attacks.
There's a lot of crap on the Internet, and I recognize that anonymity can contribute to its growth. But the alternative - forcing everything to be identifiable, forcing everyone to act in public, with their own name - ignores the significant risk to people who are seeking to communicate the most important of information, and stifles some of the most valuable speech out there. There are (or will be, as Fred notes) mechanisms that will empower the communities to enforce their own norms, and over time the right answer will be to marginalize content that has no value, rather than prohibit content which has no identity attached to it.


  1. In the spirit of the piece, I'll remain anonymous.

    I kind of agree with Fred but maybe with a twist.

    For example, I've contributed comments on The Globe and Mail website for years. Not under my real name. But, I have created a pseudonym that carries its own identity. There's a voice that's now associated with the pseudonym and every comment I make adds to a reader's perception of that identity.

    I dunno. It works for me.

  2. i don't think i can afford the $10 per troll tax but its a great model!

  3. Any chance that blogger will bring back FTP? I've used them for almost 10 years and have many blogs, blogs I want to be MYDOMAINONLY.COM not some stupid somethinghere.DOT.MYDOMAIN.COM

    I feel like this is a step BACKWARDS :(

    FTP was so amazing! RIP free world!

  4. can't you guys LEAVE ftp as a separate thing for all us FTP people? like don't even call it a blog if you must. WE NEED FTP.

    I don't want to move to wordpress, it's going to be a pain, and I shouldn't have to! I used blogger BEFORE google came along and bought it, how dare they RUIN it!

    I used to LOVE google until this, so tragic! :(

    PLEASE HELP! You are the only one who can help us little people!!

  5. @Anonymous: You can host a blog using Blogger's custom domain feature at That's always been true, and nothing in the FTP shut-down changes that. (Details here.)

    We went into great detail about the reasoning behind this decision here.

  6. Hey Rick

    I was thinkging about this post in relation to the brief talk you gave at the UR event on Tuesday. In a PR/Marketing vein, even at the most individual levels (as your annonymous commenter spoke of), identifying oneself in comments or any form of public communication becomes a way to commodify yourself and/or a brand. So looking in that direction, indetification can become, in a sense, pointedly exploitative, just as some annonymous commenting is when it aims to reach the opposite end of the polar specturm of rational discussion and decency, simply for effect. One look at Michael Lohan's tiwtter account will explain what I'm talking about.

    When so many people are trying to market themselves by addressing the public without a filter, annonymous commenting can almost be seen as subversive, and I mean that in a positive way. In some contexts, remaning unknown doesn't seem like hiding anymore, it can actually infuse the speaker with a bit more ethos in foregoing the pursuit of internet buzz for their own sake.