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.

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.

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.

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.

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