Research shows that if you remove anonymity, you won’t hear from most of your readers

Many online publishers and journalists believe that there’s a simple solution to the problem of internet comments — the trolls, the flame-wars, and so on — and that is to require that people use “real” identities, usually by forcing them to login with Facebook or some other external service. But as I’ve argued a number of times, doing this only appears to solve the problem, while creating an even larger one: namely, that by removing the option to be anonymous, media companies will never hear from a majority of their readers.

A new survey conducted recently by the audience-engagement platform Livefyre appears to reinforce that conclusion. The company — which powers user-content features for sites run by AOL, CBS and Conde Nast — asked 1,300 web users between 18 and 65 if they have ever chosen to comment anonymously, and why.

Most of those surveyed said that they responded anonymously (or pseudonymously) because they didn’t want their opinions to impact their work or professional life by being attached to their real names, or when they wanted the point of their comment to be the focus rather than their identity or background. And close to 80 percent of those surveyed said that if a site forced them to login with their offline identity, they would choose not to comment at all.

Livefyre anonymity graphic resized

What that means in practice is that if a site like The Huffington Post or ESPN requires their users to login with Facebook or provide a “real” identity in some other way, they are likely shutting out as many as 80 percent of their readers. While at least some of these may be trolls or bad actors of some kind, it’s reasonable to assume that a significant number are loyal members of that site’s community, who may have something important or worthwhile to contribute. As David Williams, community manager for CNN Digital, said in an interview with Managing Communities:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Anonymous commenting isn’t the problem. The problem is when commenters feel anonymous. It is really important to let your community know that you’re listening and that you value what they have to say… If you don’t pay attention, people will misbehave until you are forced to pay attention.[/blockquote]

Anonymous comments have value

The Livefyre survey is a relatively small sampling of readers, and some of the conclusions — the fact that only 5 percent of readers login anonymously so they can bully others, for example — may be suspect, simply because few people are going to admit that they login specifically to torment other people.

That said, however, the survey results jibe with my experience managing comments and community for a large metropolitan newspaper in a previous life. When I asked our readers about whether they would comment if the paper implemented a registration system that required a verifiable identity, a large number said they never would — and they said that their desire for anonymity was a result of wanting to take part in discussions about contentious issues like religious freedom, sexual identity and the Middle East: In other words, important topics where their views might impact their jobs or their personal life in some way.

Livefyre anonymity graphic large

As Livefyre points out, there are a number of ways that sites can cut down on bad behavior, including pre-moderation. But the best way — as long-time blogger Anil Dash pointed out in a post in 2011 — is to actually engage in the comments with members of your reader community, and even set up ways for them to help you moderate. Some new-media sites such as the crowdfunded De Correspondent in the Netherlands see their commenters as partners rather than antagonists, or use tools like Gawker’s Kinja platform to make it easier for readers to become contributing members of the community.

The bottom line is that by requiring real names, sites may decrease the potential for bad behavior, but they also significantly decrease the likelihood that many of their readers will comment. Some may see this as a benefit — fewer comments to moderate — but it is also a risk, especially when engagement with a community of readers could mean the difference between life and death for a media outlet.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Moodboard