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

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
March 9 2011 5:55 PM

Troll, Reveal Thyself

Why we need to get rid of anonymous comments.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Once or twice a week, I get a letter taking me to task for Slate's commenting policy. The reader wants to tell me that I suck, but he doesn't want to log in to Slate's comment system using his credentials for Facebook, Google, Yahoo, or Twitter. Obviously this requirement doesn't bother everyone; hundreds of people happily sign in every week to tell me I suck. Yet I imagine that there are lots more people who are itching to chime in but who are put out by the login process.

One common misperception is that Slate wants your social-networking account in order to steal your private information. In fact, when you comment by typing in your username and password for Facebook or Twitter, those sites are the ones that check your credentials—Slate never sees your login information. If you sign on with your Facebook account, we do see your name and other details you've made available for everyone, but we get nothing more private than that.

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If Slate isn't looking to invade your privacy, why are we asking you to log in with your social-networking accounts? Why make it so hard for people to comment—don't we want every reader to participate, even if they're skittish about revealing their names?

I can't speak for my bosses, who might feel differently than I do. But as a writer, my answer is no—I don't want anonymous commenters. Everyone who works online knows that there's a direct correlation between the hurdles a site puts up in front of potential commenters and the number and quality of the comments it receives. The harder a site makes it for someone to post a comment, the fewer comments it gets, and those comments are generally better.

I think Slate's commenting requirements—and those of many other sites—aren't stringent enough. Slate lets people log in with accounts from Google and Yahoo, which are essentially anonymous; if you want to be a jerk in Slate's comments, create a Google account and knock yourself out. If I ruled the Web, I'd change this. I'd make all commenters log in with Facebook or some equivalent third-party site, meaning they'd have to reveal their real names to say something in a public forum. Facebook has just revamped its third-party commenting "plug-in," making it easier for sites to outsource their commenting system to Facebook. Dozens of sites—including, most prominently, the blog TechCrunch—recently switched over to the Facebook system. Their results are encouraging: At TechCrunch, the movement to require real names has significantly reduced the number of trolls who tar the site with stupid comments.

That should come as no surprise. Anonymity has long been hailed as one of the founding philosophies of the Internet, a critical bulwark protecting our privacy. But that view no longer holds. In all but the most extreme scenarios—everywhere outside of repressive governments—anonymity damages online communities. Letting people remain anonymous while engaging in fundamentally public behavior encourages them to behave badly. Indeed, we shouldn't stop at comments. Web sites should move toward requiring people to reveal their real names when engaging in all online behavior that's understood to be public—when you're posting a restaurant review or when you're voting up a story on Reddit, say. In almost all cases, the Web would be much better off if everyone told the world who they really are.

What's my beef with anonymity? For one thing, several social science studies have shown that when people know their identities are secret (whether offline or online), they behave much worse than they otherwise would have. Formally, this has been called the "online disinhibition effect," but in 2004, the Web comic Penny Arcade coined a much better name: The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. If you give a normal person anonymity and an audience, this theory posits, you turn him into a total fuckwad. Proof can be found in the comments section on YouTube, in multiplayer Xbox games, and under nearly every politics story on the Web. With so many fuckwads everywhere, sometimes it's hard to understand how anyone gets anything out of the Web.

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