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.