Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

March 2, 2007

A Comment on Comments About Comments

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:36 am

My last post on my evolving philosophy of comments in which I called for real names from commenters, at least for this blog, provoked some interesting responses which I’d like to discuss in more detail because it’s an issue that goes beyond this particular blog.

Some might think the issue of comment policy is too insider-y. In fact the comment side of blogging has been a source of recurrent controversies in the past 6 months, throughout the blogosphere. Controversies that have spilled over into the “real world” of politics in several cases. There were the series of “sock-puppet” exposes and the discussion of how serious an ethical violation this was. There have been major Federal court decisions about libel issues–the responsibility of bloggers for libelous comments posted on their blog by commenters. Then there are the criss cross attacks between left and right blogs that try to pin responsiblity for extreme or bigoted commenters on the blog host. Uncivil fights about which side displays the most “lack of civility”?

There have been “scrubbing” of comments, “cherry picking” of comments, re ordering of comments, comment-generated scandals such as the recent Huffing-ton Post Death-to-Cheney comment explosion and the subsequent retrospective scrubbing and re ordering of those comments.

So it’s not just a inbred blogosphere navel gazing matter. My feeling, based on only limited experience blogging, but all too many hours reading blogs and blog commenters is that while many comment threads that contain anonymous posts are valuable, they’re not necessarily valuable because of the anonymity afforded.

I’d suggest it is better to err on the side of transparency which has long been a core web value. That the main reason comments tend to spiral into ugliness, and witless insult-generating contests is anonymity.

Anonymity allows one, metaphorically, to throw rocks from behind a tree and then go hide in the bushes to escape responsibility. Anonymity encourages “cyber-disinhibition”, in which people say things behind a scrim of anonymity they would not say F2F in a discussion where all parties were present. It encourages the anonymous to sound off boldly from a hidey-hole of anonymity. To spend their time and others’ (the ones who have to scroll through them) devising what they believe to be witty sallies which often turn out to childish playground name-calling–or the equivalent of obscene telephone calls– rather than devising thoughtful arguments.

The first of the two main arguments in favor of anonymity posted in the comments on my initial comments post is that people can get in trouble with their jobs for posting comments. Well, free speech often involves sacrifice of some kind and I wonder if this feared trouble is just an excuse. Maybe the solution is not to hide but to stand and fight, fight for legislation for instance that would prohibit corporations from punishing people for exercising their free speech. There are probably some legitimate exceptions where job-related anonymity is justified and I’d be willing to take them into account.

But a lot of the “my company makes me scared so I have to hide” argument isn’t entirely convincing. If you have a strong belief you should fight for the right to express it. We all should support you in that fight.

But if it’s a question of your just having a need to insult or abuse or display your otherwise unpublishable efforts at humor (I’m not speaking of any of the commenters here) and don’t want to take responsibility, that’s another thing.

The other argument expressed in comments on my Comments post is that there’s no way of verifying whether “real names” are real. . I agree that does pose a problem, aside from raising a question about why someone should be go to such lengths just to post some witless insult. Sad. At a minimum it would suggest that making the e mail from which posts are sent transparent to the reader so that, even if the pseudonymous coward can hide his identity he will at least be vulnerable to receiving directly the derision his views may evoke.

I still don’t have a good answer to these questions–it’s complicated isn’t it? I’d welcome further discussion, I think it’s an important issue for the internet as a whole, not just this blog. And it doesn’t even get into the question of bloggers’–as opposed to commenters’–anonymity.

I think it’s valuable if the entire blogosphere took some time to reflect on these questions and sought to arrive at some rough consensus on what is and isn’t a serious scandal (sock puppetry?), and what is or isn’t unethical or sleazy (scrubbing and deleting posts and comments that later become an embarrassment?).

In the mean time, real names please, I will tend to err on the side of trusting the honesty of those who provide their names. Until I have reason not to. And if you’re using a pseudonym make your email address transparent.

I think transparency is a goal to be sought if not always attainable. I’ll try to give consideration to legitimate exceptions when they don’t involve gratuitous insults, obscenity, bigotry and egregious stupidity. And I’ll make exceptions for anonymous and pseudonymous comments when they’re exceptionally intelligent or make exceptionally thought-provoking points. I don’t want to drive away those people.

Thank you for thinking about this along with me.

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17 Comments »

  1. To be honest, I’m not sure I understand why I or any person chooses to post a comment on a blog in the first place.

    Comment by Shmuel — March 2, 2007 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

  2. Welcome to one of the longest running problems of the Internet, around since long before the Web and even before UseNet. In fact, if I were to take a look at some of the RFC’s (Request for Comment) documents that were passed from node to node in the Stone Age of the Net, I’m pretty sure I could find it there as well.

    “Transparency” is a goal of the Net and always has been because the software not only allows it, but for many core functions demands it — we all know that any mistake in typing sends a message off to either someone else or to a wall that bounces it back to you. The system, being composed of computers, is very intolerant of imprecision — something that humans excel at and computer designers are constantly striving to emulate.

    At the same time, humans can manipulate the core software on many levels to give them the desired results. You can’t know from the email since so many have multiple accounts on multiple systems, and a “valid” account on one system allows a user to get a valid account on another system with the first system’s email address. Repeat several times and you will never be able to track the email account “bogus@hotmail.com” back to the real user. IP numbers offer some verifiability but IP anonymizers and anonymizing websites are common as clay when you look.

    Anonymity in the open net is constantly sought and yet constantly fought. Any open system has to have a way of keeping secrets for good or ill.

    To my mind, so many have struggled for so long to “hide in plain sight” that — on a system that all my access — searching for transparency is like shoveling seaweed against the tide. It is a fine ideal, but those with malevolent motives or simply those of a shy nature will roll right over it. An honor system only works if everyone involved has and believes in honor and for many honor is an obsolete value.

    On an open system, anonymity simply cannot be enforced. You are in the final analysis depending on the kindness of strangers.

    You can, however, retain a level of moderation and simply refuse those comments that you are not sure about or that do not add, in your opinion, to the discussion. That’s your absolute right as the owner of the page and no one can insist otherwise — although many do. This usually arises from those poor souls that believe the First Amendment points towards private individuals rather than governments.

    At the same time you are absolutely correct about the malign effects of anonymity. It always and invariably leads to the same things sooner of later in online discussions — insults and obscenity and libel.

    Once on the WELL — a closed community in which all users’ real names appeared beside their posts and which was endlessly fascinating because of this fact — we tried a conference in which the members of the WELL would indeed be allowed to be utterly anonymous. It was an instant and unmitigated disaster and was halted by common community consensus after about a month. The level of bile and invective soon rose from the playful to the toxic level.

    And that was in a closed and gated community where everyone knew each other. Out here it is different, much different, because you are the only gatekeeper and people are very, very clever about their disguises.

    Comment by Van der Leun — March 2, 2007 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  3. If the real names are not verifiable, what stops someone from posing as someone else who is real and presenting unappetizing views that will then be attributed to that innocent person?

    Perhaps finding a way (by having members log on?) of at least fixing a single identity (pseudonymous or otherwise) to each specific commenter would be better then an honor system of ‘real’ names.

    Comment by J. M. Seaver — March 2, 2007 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  4. Great discussion.

    For the record, Pajamas Media is working (slowly, alas) on a comments registration system that would vastly restrict anonymous comments.

    Also, for the record Ron, this discussion is much older than the six months you refer to above. It was subject of long debate on my blog, the Instapundit and elsewhere as long as four years ago (possibly more). It has yet to be resolved, obviously. Those of us – like you and me – who came to blogging from other forms of writing I think find the anonymity particularly disturbing.

    Glad tohear about the new i.d. system. For the record, I didn’t assert that this only began to be discussed 6 months ago, but that in the past 6 months controversies over it have become more high profile and impactful outide the world of blogger veterans such as you and Gerald. Sorry if that was not clear, or if I was not deferential enough to old blogging hands. (is my cyber disinhibition showing?) r.r.

    Comment by Roger L. Simon — March 2, 2007 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  5. Irresponsible attack comments with a name associated with them carry heft and impact. Irresponsible attack comments posted anonymously are rarely read and always impotent. Allow anonymity: it is like static between stations when it is bad, but when clear and contributes to the conversation is something that would be missed if the shy among us are compelled to parade naked.

    Comment by Anne Onimus — March 2, 2007 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  6. I didn’t think you asserted the problem was young, I was just pointing out that the problem and the various takes on it were very old.

    Here’s something from 1981:
    “Untraceable electronic mail, return addresses, and digital pseudonyms” by David Chaum

    http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=358563&dl=ACM&coll=portal&CFID=11111111&CFTOKEN=2222222

    The time at which flaming and alternate and anonymous comments and posts really broke out on the Internet was just after “The Great Renaming” at UseNet with the creation of the alt. groups. These groups were free of the previous restrictions of the formal Usenet groups even after The Great Renaming and rapidly became a lens for the best and the worst of the Net in that period. Porn, spam, and virulent flame wars much, much worse than anything you see on the blogs were commonplace there and, for all I know, still are.

    Still, the alt. groups prepared the ground.

    Comment by van der Leun — March 2, 2007 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  7. I am a former reactinary conspiracy buff, who later moved to the idea that perhaps the government was correct and then back to thinking it was a conspiracy. Why? If you look at a zoomed- in copy of the Zapruder film, just before the deciding head shot, President Kennedy turns his head to his left. This is when Jackie is holding on to him. His head is nearly completely turned to his left when that bullet hits. In my mind,it is a shot that is impossible from the sixth floor. I never have believed a shot came from the pickett fence, but it did come from the railroad tracks, or somewhere else in the front of the limo.

    Comment by nick percowycz — March 2, 2007 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  8. i am fascinated w/ all this blogging talk. i’m a newcomer. i simply lv reading “the shakespeare wars.” i just finished chapter 4. onward, i’m happy to go.

    Comment by charles sullivan — March 2, 2007 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

  9. You blog and ask for comments.
    Commenters (or they SHOULD) comment to you, and do not invite comments to themselves. Why should they open their personnae and, perhaps worse, their websites to attacks by the rude noisers, just in order to contribute to YOUR debate for which you asked comments?
    Love your blog, your intellect, your reason. Get off this dead-end spur.

    Many thanks for the compliments,. But just to clarify I don’t “invite” comments in the sense that I ‘m desperate for them. I like the ability a blog gives me to commment almost instantly on things that strike me as worthy of note and try to make my remarks interesting/entertaining. I originally didn’t enable comments at all, when I did I was pleased by the intelligence of many of the commenters, but if you’re so concerned about “rude noisers” invading other websites, why should I welcome them here if they don’t have the courage to stand behind their noise with their names Maybe the solution is not to require names from those who display some civility even when they disagree and not publish those who don’t. r.r.

    Comment by tuan — March 3, 2007 @ 7:17 am | Reply

  10. I think the arguments for anonymity don’t hold water. If someone is constrained by their job, etc, that’s life. Anything important can be conveyed to you privately anyway.

    PJM is a terrific idea and deserves a bit of respect. The “rude noisers” can go play in the Jr. High rumpus room blogs.

    Comment by Jack Woodward — March 3, 2007 @ 9:26 am | Reply

  11. I am in favor of keeping a pseudonymous option available. The authors of both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers used pseudonyms for various genuinely compelling reasons. It is a sad commentary on the lack of civility in todays political discourse that makes this discussion even necessary. Heinlein had it right when he observed that “an armed society is a polite society.” Indeed,hiding behind trees and slinging anonymous stones is despicable behavior and ought not to be allowed by the Blog Host. I hope that those so enamoured of their First Amendmant rights, stay well practiced in the exercise of of their Second Amendment duties as well. The fact that a Blog Host need fear legal retribution for another authors indescretion shows only that this country suffers an excess abundance of fools and Lawyers. Circumstances, especially political ones, may change rapidly. Some have observed that Republican government often seems just to be a brief period in the transition from monarchy to despoptism. Romes 7 kings led to a republic and the republic eventually chose Ceaser Dictator.The transition from Kaiser William II to Weimar to Hitler and the history of the french revolution from Louis XVI to the Emperor Boneparte illustrate how quickly such a change can happen. Perhaps pseudonyms have a place after all. I’m going to put my tin-foil hat back on now. Ciao!
    L.D.Copeland

    Comment by L.D.Copeland — March 3, 2007 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

  12. A related problem: The estimable Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs has been having a lot of trouble with vermin at digg. One of their most foul tactics has been to send vile comments falsely signed with his name.

    Comment by Bleepless — March 4, 2007 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  13. Your house — your rules — no argument.

    But I post anonymously or not at all.

    Comment by Tom Paine — March 4, 2007 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

  14. Anonymity has its uses, as long as it isn’t used for abusive behavior. Recently, an Egyptian blogger was imprisoned for 4 years for insulting Islam, the Prophet, and President Mubarak. Such courageous individuals should be able to speak their mind without fear of incarceration; which implies allowing them to do so anonymously. It should be at the discretion of the blogger where the line of tolerance should be. Some have thicker skins than others. It seems to me that anonymous posts carry almost zero weight, unless they are done seriously, with a valid reason.

    Comment by Skip Conover — March 5, 2007 @ 6:51 am | Reply

  15. “But I post anonymously or not at all.”

    Me too, unfortunately. If there was a searchable and permanent public google-like database for spoken utterances, I probably would never speak a word to a stranger again.

    Comment by Shmuel — March 5, 2007 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

  16. Fascinating discussion.

    Substitute “pseudonymously” [always the same pseudonyn] for “anonymously” above, and I’m with
    Tom Paine and Shmuel. I’m a bit of a privacy nut, and always have been, since long before the Internet. The alt.group flame wars just cemented my feelings about it.

    As a reader, I tend to ignore anonymous comments on blogs, and am more likely to pay attention to comments with e-mail addresses and/or blogs or sites linked to the person’s name (whether a pseudonym or real). It tells me that someone is “home.”

    But I may be projecting.

    Comment by hepzeeba — March 5, 2007 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  17. Good subject post!
    1. Employees should be working, period!If they need to “catch up” on blogs then do so during breaks and lunch or after work. The employer is paying you a salary, right?

    2. There is really no “hiding” because anyone can and do trace via the IP address.

    3. There is danger in “no anonymity” as Michelle Malkin, Jeff Goldstein, and LGF have discovered. Michelle’s residence was “outed” via Google Earth; Jeff, I believe is involved in a legal matter; Little Green Footballs is always in trouble with the Left. But, with the exception of the “bad” guys, maybe anonymity may bring some fresh air to the dark and smelly caverns used by the bad and ugly.

    I “comment” on several blogs because it is like entering into a conversation wherein your and their opinions are tossed back and forth and perhaps some sanity can be got.
    I also comment to thank an author for doing a good job or having a good thought or post.

    I dislike the MSM who are like “anonymous” tell us they are biased then run behind the bush to hide. They should have their email very prominently displayed on their work so the “people” can give them an opinion.

    Comment by Sue — March 6, 2007 @ 6:32 pm | Reply


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