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The Case Against Anonymity

Facebook has recently rolled out Facebook Comments, an exciting new commenting system for blogs and websites. Why is it so exciting? Because it forces people to comment using their real names (or at least, makes it more difficult to continue creating fake ones). TechCrunch has tried implementing the system, and it’s had some pretty interesting results so far.

Steve Cheney, for one, claimed that the new comments were killing authenticity:

People yearn to be individuals. They want to be authentic. They have numerous different groups of real-life friends. They stylize conversations. They are emotional and have an innate need to connect on different levels with different people. This is because humans are born with an instinctual desire to understand the broader context of their surroundings and build rapport, a social awareness often called emotional intelligence.

In the beginning, Facebook catered to this instinct we all have. But FB in its current form, a big graph of people who may or may not know anything about one another, does not. And forcing people to comment – and more broadly speaking to log-on – with one identity puts a massive stranglehold on our very nature. I’m not too worried about FB Comments in isolation, but the writing is on the wall: all of this off-site encroachment of the Facebook graph portends where FB is really going in pushing one identity. And a uniform identity defies us.

The argument is basically: you’re only free to be yourself when you’re not being yourself.

Robert Scoble responded thusly:

Where did my authenticity come from? I knew that REAL change comes from people putting their necks on the line. I couldn’t remember a time when an anonymous person really enacted change in, well, anything. It’s why I sign my name to everything, even stuff that could get me fired. Hell, I live in an “at will” state. THIS post could get me fired! My boss could wake up tomorrow and decide he doesn’t like the shirt I’m wearing and fire me. People have been fired in Silicon Valley for less you know. Look at all the images from Egypt (and I hope you don’t think I’m comparing myself to those heroes who sacrificed their lives there) but they put their necks on the line and they signed their name to the ultimate sacrifice. They were NOT cowards. THEY LOVE FACEBOOK AND THE VOICE IT GIVES THEM!

As usual, I think the true answer lies somewhere in between. We can’t all be like Robert Scoble. Not everyone has his outsized personality, his willingness to put himself out there, his defiance of any potential consequences that could arise from the things he says. That being said, Facebook Comments seem like they’d be a boon to any website that finds itself in a never-ending battle with trolls. As Scoble points out, for a site such as Techcrunch, “the flow has gone down,” but “the quality has gone way up.” Facebook Comments still have a long way to go to compete with more flexible commenting systems like Disqus, but you can’t really argue with a system that makes your website a more pleasant place to be.

Update: Laura June at Engadget has weighed on this debate with a thoughtful piece on the costs of forcing identity disclosure.

[I]f I have to be the Laura June that my step-mother (who was friends with me on Facebook, back when I had an account) knows when I’m commenting on Gawker, well, my behavior will be much different. In fact, I might not comment at all. The problem isn’t that idea: it is of course, absolutely true. The problem is that very few people seem to be questioning whether or not that is, in fact, a good thing. Because… is it? Am I no longer entitled to some separation between who I am when I’m talking about technology rather than when I’m talking about my political beliefs, should I choose to separate those things? Is a teenager no longer entitled to explore and even comment on blogs about, say, homosexuality, without logging in to Facebook to do so? Does everybody need to know everything that I like? Do they even want to?

If I was that exploring teenager, of course, and the whole world had flipped the Facebook switch, I could always just make a fake Facebook account, for sure. But it seems to me that this is a false necessity, where we force people to lie about who they are, rather than merely enabling them to choose not to disclose who they are to begin with.

  • Easy Solution:

    Allow both types of comments, and offer the option for the reader to filter them however they like. I can definitely see points against this practice, but I fall firmly on the side of accountability and the promise of a more civil discourse. So if I were given the option, I would immediately check the "see 'real comments' only" box and enjoy my time online.

  • Not really that "easy," Daanish: What would you do in a situation where there's a conversation with both types of comments? People would only see the replies from the "real" comments and it would make no sense…

    It's not a good user experience.

  • Internet anonymity, for me, has always felt like a crutch that undermines the veracity of the argument or point a commenter chooses to take a position on. When people follow the path of veiled postulating they show that they are unwilling to commit fully to their comments. Anonymity emboldens the trolls and lowers the quality of honest critique and discourse that most sites, most likely and hopefully, aspire to foster in their readership. This sacrifice of quality can create an environment that produces annoying noise tantamount to insipid water cooler chatter.

    To put it simply: to be unaccountable is easier, if not, a natural inclination when dealing with online material.

    At times it does seem a bit odd that the readership of a blog or news site can demand, with a straight face clear of any betraying show of hypocrisy, complete transparency and accountability -as they should, and this is something which I also require from the journalism I subscribe to- while they are unwilling to hold the same mirror to their own practices. Attacks on ethical transgressions, such as the paid advertorials Slashfilm ran in the past, are understandable but since there was disclosure these issues become commuted from major violation to a minor grievance.

    Another concern is commenting on low risk versus high risk issues as there are some things you might, or might not, want to associate with your name. I mainly comment on film sites, and stay away from political discussion in the online space, so my output is relatively low risk.

    Ultimately I doubt anything will curb this preference for anonymity. Even if unmasked commenting is made easier and more streamlined, through this FB service or another companies system, it will be ignored by those who want to remain faceless. Also, I don't mean to imply that all anonymous comments are a detriment to a site and lack any validity as I don't think this is wholly true. Anonymous comments can be interesting, insightful (usually not the case, but they can be), and fairly amusing. What I see happening is that some people, who once commented anonymously, will adopt this full disclosure comment system and continue writing, for better or worse, under their own name and individual persona. This will probably be rare. And those who prefer the alternative will continue to comment anonymously. So, in the end, not much will change.

  • //What would you do in a situation where there's a conversation with both types of comments

    That would be part of the personal options: show or hide hybrid conversations.

    Obviously there is no perfect solution, but sometimes it feels like anything would be an improvement.

    I've been a SlashFilm reader for years, and maybe it's just me, but I've notice a substantial decline in the user comments as the site has grown.

    I remember reading last year that Blizzard was going to enforce real identities on their forums (I remember that Jeff Cannata was behind the idea as well). I don't play any Blizzard games, but I would really like to know how that has turned out.