Yes, Gawker is conflicted — but anonymity is still valuable

As promised — if somewhat delayed — Gawker Media has launched its new commenting system, the one that founder Nick Denton told me he hoped would turn the online media world upside down, and put conversation at the heart of the site instead of just the story. Whether it will actually do that in any real way remains to be seen, but there is one interesting aspect of the new system that is unlike almost any other, and that is Gawker’s commitment to anonymity. At a time when everyone is talking about how important it is to have real identities, Denton is going in the opposite direction. And while that may benefit Gawker for all kinds of selfish reasons, it’s still a goal worth supporting — and an experiment worth watching.

As Denton described in his interview with GigaOM, the new commenting system does away with the previous tiered approach, in which certain preferred commenters were awarded “stars” for good behavior, which gave them extra privileges. This is similar to the way that online communities like Slashdot handle comments — it awards “karma points” to its users, which give them extra benefits — and the New York Times also recently rolled out a new commenting system that allows certain favored users to be promoted to a higher level. It’s an approach that other sites use as well.

How do you get people to comment who actually know something?

But Denton says this approach simply doesn’t work, because the most frequent commenters aren’t always the ones worth hearing from, so they get overwhelmed by social-media experts. As he put it in another interview at SXSW:

The most interesting comments, they don’t come from people with Klout scores, they don’t come from people who actually have a long history of commenting on our sites or any sites. Often it’s a first-timer. Often it’s anonymous.

The last part of Denton’s comment is the key. So what Gawker has done is more than just take a step back from the “star” commenter approach: It is effectively doubling down on the concept of anonymity in online discussion, as Denton notes in his post. And that is an interesting move, especially since the general trend over the past year or so has been that anonymity is something that needs to disappear, particularly when it comes to comments and online discussion. It’s one of the reasons so many newspapers and other sites have outsourced their commenting systems to Facebook.

Facebook has been one of the main promoters of a unified online identity that has a “real” name attached to it, something critics say the giant social network is interested in primarily because it makes it easier to sell advertising. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone as far as to say that he thinks having one identity for personal reasons and another for professional reasons “is a sign of a lack of integrity,” and his sister Randi said recently she can’t wait for anonymous commentary to be eradicated from the Internet.

Google also jumped on the “real name” bandwagon when it launched its Google+ network, saying verified names were necessary for civil conversation, and it initially blocked anyone who used a pseudonym. After a storm of criticism over this move, however, the company said it was moderating its approach somewhat and would allow people to use pseudonyms in addition to registering with their real names. Meanwhile, a number of high-profile bloggers have turned off comments, because they say the noise level is not worth the effort, and much of this is also blamed on anonymity.

Anonymity matters if you care about the truth

As Denton points out in his defense of anonymity, however, the benefit of allowing it in comments arguably outweighs the noise. In particular, the people who are the most likely to have inside information about something important or newsworthy are also the least likely to want to use their real names — and less likely to be long-term commenters who have earned stars or other rewards. In Denton’s view, journalists like former New York Times reporter Judith Miller are happy to use anonymous sources to help pull an entire country into a war in Iraq, but no one else gets to question them in public.

It’s time for the leakers and the moles to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information; and it’s time for them to be subject to challenge, not just by their pet reporter, but by readers.

While the Gawker founder would like his defense of anonymity to be seen as a high-minded commitment to journalism, it’s obvious that he has his own unique interests in mind as well: Leakers and moles, all of whom are more likely to want to remain anonymous, are also a great source of the kind of insider gossip and speculation that many of Gawker’s properties are known for — the kind that are a great source of traffic regardless of whether they are true or not. And that’s what the new “Burner” account feature is designed for: Commenters effectively get a onetime, totally secure and anonymous identity.

But regardless of whether Gawker’s interest in anonymity is selfish or not, I think it is still worth cheering, especially when everyone else is in such a hurry to force real names to the forefront. Just as anonymity allow gossips to spread rumors in Gawker forums, it also allows those with inside knowledge of all kinds — or stories to tell that might put them in danger, in the case of controversial subjects such as the Arab Spring or other contentious topics — to contribute to the discussion, and that is a valuable goal we shouldn’t lose sight of in our attempts to outlaw trolls and spam.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Ben Fredericson and Richard Engel of NBC