Dear Arianna: Anonymity has value, and doing away with it won’t solve your commenting problem

According to statements made by Huffington Post (s aol) founder Arianna Huffington in Boston on Wednesday, the site plans to end anonymous comments next month, as my Gigaom colleague Barb Darrow has reported. Huffington said that she has decided there are too many “trolls” using the site who hide behind anonymity in order to make violent or offensive comments, and that she believes people should “stand up for what they say.”
Is anonymity really the problem with online comments? I don’t think so, and there is at least some evidence that supports my argument — but more than that, anonymity has real value and giving it up has serious consequences.
The Huffington Post founder suggested that her feelings about anonymity have been colored by recent rape and death threats against women in Britain, even though most of these — including a sustained attack on freelance journalist Caroline Criado-Perez that took place over a number of days — actually occurred on Twitter (which has repeatedly defended its users’ rights to remain anonymous, or at least pseudonymous). According to Huffington:

“Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are threats of rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”

Do we need a “grown-up internet?”

Arianna Huffington
Huffington’s views on comments — especially the part about using real identities being part of the “grown-up internet” — are very much in line with other arguments that have been made in the past about the dangers of anonymity, including former Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg’s comments in 2011 that anonymity on the internet “has to go away” because of online bullying and other bad behavior. Google executive Vic Gundotra made a similar argument when the company launched its Google+ social network and required the use of a “verified identity.”
The logical extension of this argument is to make online anonymity impossible, or even illegal. At least one U.S. legislator has tried to float a bill that would do exactly that: Illinois senator Ira Silverstein proposed that web users only be allowed to comment if they verify their identity online. But would this actually reduce the amount of trolling or flaming or offensive behavior in comments — or anywhere else? Unlikely.
Not only is this fairly obvious from seeing all kinds of abusive behavior occur on Facebook,, but some evidence has emerged that shows requiring real identities from online users actually accomplishes surprisingly little when it comes to changing trollish behavior: in 2007, South Korea mandated verified identities for all users of sites with more than 100,000 visitors, but scrapped the program in 2011 — because requiring real identities only reduced the amount of nasty comments by .09 percent.

Requiring real identity loses something

The debate over anonymity and its value, both in comments and elsewhere on the internet, has been going on almost since the web was invented. I’ve tried to make the argument numerous times that there is real value in allowing anonymity, a case I also fought for when I was the social-media editor at a major Canadian newspaper, where I had to defend the use of anonymity almost daily.
For me, the question isn’t really whether requiring the use of verified identities or registration numbers or some other system might help reduce anonymous trolling — it’s what we would be giving up in return for that small improvement. As a number of other defenders of anonymity have pointed out, there are valuable things we can learn from commenters that they would never contribute if they had to attach their real identity to it. Comments about spousal abuse, sexual identity, religious persecution — the list goes on.
Is a modest decline in trolling worth giving all of that up? And it’s not just those kinds of comments — a recent survey by comment-software company Disqus found that pseudonymous comments provided some of the most value across a fairly huge number of sites using the company’s software.

Why not try to engage instead?

One of the last times this debate came up, Anil Dash made what I thought was a persuasive argument that if your site has too many trolls, that is your fault for not engaging more with your readers and setting the tone for your comments. Obviously engaging with millions of commenters every day — which is what the Huffington Post routinely gets — is virtually impossible, which is why the site has 40 moderators and a suite of algorithms to handle the flood. So why not try to look at comments differently?
The New York Times has made at least a small effort to improve its comments, by promoting some readers to ** status and allowing them to comment without moderation, and by highlighting some comments alongside its stories instead of leaving them all at the bottom. Both of these steps are a significant incentive for good behavior. Gawker Media gives its commenters their own blogs, and lets them contribute their own stories — something that should be appealing to a site like Huffington Post, which got its start by allowing almost anyone to blog for free. Why not create tiers of commenting to encourage better input?
Do we encourage trolls and offensive behavior when we allow people to contribute anonymously? Perhaps. But free speech comes with a price, and I think we lose something significant when we start requiring people to verify their identities before we listen to what they have to say. If that’s what is required for a “grown-up internet” then I would like to stick with the one we have.
In closing, here’s a TED talk from Christopher “Moot” Poole, the founder of 4chan, about the benefits of anonymity.
[ted id=874]
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Andrea Michele Pasquiado