Anonymous comments: Why we need to get rid of them once and for all.

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March 9 2011 5:55 PM

Troll, Reveal Thyself

Why we need to get rid of anonymous comments.

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Advocates for anonymity argue that fuckwaddery is the price we have to pay to ensure people's privacy. Posting your name on the Web can lead to all kinds of unwanted attention—search engines will index you, advertisers can track you, prospective employers will be able to profile you. That's too high a price to pay, you might argue, for the privilege of telling an author that he completely blows.

Well, shouldn't you have to pay that high a price? I'm not calling for constant transparency. If you're engaging in private behavior—watching a movie online, posting a dating profile, gambling, or doing anything else that the whole world shouldn't know about—I support and celebrate your right to anonymity. But posting a comment is a public act. You're responding to an author who made his identity known, and your purpose, in posting the comment, is to inform the world of your point of view. If you want to do something so public, you are naturally ceding some measure of your privacy. If you're not happy with that trade, don't take part—keep your views to yourself.

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Until recently this debate was largely academic. Those of us who called for ending anonymity had no good way to make commenters prove who they were. As a stopgap, many sites set up their own login systems, but this was tedious (who wants to go through the process of creating an account just to post a one-line retort?), unsafe (see what happened at Gawker), and ineffective, because there was still no way to force people to use their real names. Facebook has changed that. Not only does a Facebook account include your real name, but it's also tied to your network of friends and family. This means that anything you post with your Facebook account is viewable by people you know. This introduces to the Web one of the most important offline rules for etiquette: Don't say anything that you'd be ashamed to say in front of your mom.

What will the outing of commenters do to comment threads? From what I can tell, sites that switched on Facebook comments this month saw an overnight improvement in the quality of posts they attracted. Comments on TechCrunch used to be virtually unreadable; now—even on hot-button subjects like Apple—they're somewhat interesting. Or look at this comment thread on a San Jose Mercury News story about rat poison being found at a Sunnyvale, Calif., dog park. A guy named Stephen Chen pops in to say that the poisoner is "Probably someone whose lawn was pooped on one too many times." But seeing his name attached to that comment must have made him think twice; he quickly posted a second comment underneath, "Uh oh, compassionate and loving friends/family of the dogs may find this a hateful and hurtful comment."

Sure, this isn't terribly high-minded. I'll concede, too, that forcing people to use their real names might give us more "sterile and neutered" comments, as the blogger Steve Cheney argued last week. And perhaps we'll miss some important comments that could only be posted anonymously. If TechCrunch writes a post wondering about some terrible new Apple policy, for instance, we likely won't see an anonymous comment from a whistle-blower explaining the policy. But I doubt that's a real loss—I don't think raucous comment forums are the first place that whistle-blowers turn to. I'll take sterile and neutered over vulgar, stupid, irrelevant, sexist, racist, false, and defamatory any day. That's why I hope every site on the Web adopts Facebook's comment system. Disagree with me? Tell me why below. Just use your real name.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.