Networking: March 2011 Archives

 

March 11, 2011

I've complained before about Farhad Manjoo's shallow analysis of the social implications of technical decisions, which seems to begin and end with what would be convenient for him. His latest post is an argument against anonymous comments on Internet forums/message boards/etc. Manjoo writes:

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 can appreciate how Manjoo might feel like that. No doubt as a writer it's annoying to get anonymous people telling you that you suck (and much as I find Manjoo's writing annoying, I'm forced to admit that even good writing gets that sort of reaction from time to time). However, this claim simply isn't true—or at least isn't supported by any evidence I know of—to the contrary, the Slate comments section (which Manjoo endorses later in his article) isn't really that great and one of the most highly regarded blog comment sections, Obsidian Wings is almost completely anonymous (though moderated), with the only barrier to posting being a CAPTCHA. Similarly, some of the most entertaining pure-comments sites such as Fark only require e-mail confirm, which, as Manjoo admits, is virtually anonymous. I don't really know everything that makes a good comments section work, but it's a lot more complicated than just requiring people to use their real names.

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.

This is an odd claim since Facebook actually makes no real attempt to verify your full name. Like most sites, they just verify that there is some e-mail addres that you can respond at. It's not even clear how Facebook would go about verifying people's real names. Obviously, they could prune out people who claim to be Alan Smithee, (though consider this) but the world is full of real John Smiths, so why shouldn't I be another one of them?

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.

I don't disagree that this is to some extent true, though I would observe that (a) the link Manjoo points to doesn't actually contain any studies as far as I can tell, just an article oriented towards the lay public and (b) it's not clear to what extent people's bad online behavior is a result of anonymity. Some of the most vicious behavior I've seen online has been on mailing lists where people's real-world identities (and employers!) are well-known and in some cases the participants actually know each other personally and are polite face-to-face.

As I said above, I don't think anyone really knows exactly what makes a good online community (though see here for some thoughts on it by others), but my intuition is that it's less an issue of anonymity than of getting the initial culture right, in a way that it resists trolling, flamewars, etc., or at least has a way to contain them. In comments sections that work, when someone shows up and starts trolling (even where this is easy and anonymous), the posters mostly ignore it and the moderators deal with it swiftly, so it never gets out of hand. Once the heat gets above some critical point on a regular basis, though, these social controls break down and it takes a really big hammer to get things back under control. It's not clear to me that knowing people's real names has much of an impact on any of that.