What did you say your name was?

July 9, 2010

Let’s see who’s been commenting on Reuters stories and blogs in recent days and weeks. There’s gadfly, WeNotMe, Blisterpearls, northboundgirl, Snowshoes and JacktheBear, among others. I strongly suspect those are not their real names.

I don’t mean to call out these particular commenters, and I’m happy to see our readers taking the time to engage in robust discussion on Reuters.com. But I’m beginning to think our discussion would be even more robust and insightful if those making comments signed their real names.

News organizations have grappled with how to handle reader comments practically since the dawn of online media. When I was at MSNBC.com in the 1990s we had message boards that at first were heavily monitored (at a fairly high cost) and then were largely unmonitored. By 1998, no matter what the purported subject of the board, the discussion would be taken over by frenzied postings on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Some organizations have taken a very laissez-faire approach to reader comments, allowing anything to be posted and taking down only the most egregiously offensive comments after the fact. Others have taken a much more labor-intensive–and expensive–approach, moderating all comments before they’re published. Some have banned anonymous comments. Most are somewhere in the middle.
I spoke with Reuters general manager for global consumer media, Keith McAllister, about the Reuters.com approach.

“We want our users to be as involved as possible in Reuters.com,” Keith said. “User comments, particularly, help us move stories beyond our own reporting and analysis to unpredictably interesting and valuable places. We learn from (users) and, we believe, (users) learn from each other.”

He added: “We are also zealous guardians of the quality of the Reuters.com community because so many of you rely on our site to be a place of serious and informed debate. That’s why we ask users to register to comment and why–in the near future–we’ll take the additional step of clearing each new user’s first comment.”

I think that’s a smart move that will make the debate in the comments sections even smarter. Still, I wonder if we should tackle the question of anonymity.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten explored the subject of anonymous, vitriolic comments and asked in an online poll if readers who file comments should be required to identify themselves. As of this writing, about 46 percent say no and 41 percent say yes.

New technologies have offered more sophisticated and powerful monitoring and registration tools, but in the end it all comes down to how much news organizations are willing to spend and to whether we fundamentally believe that people should be allowed to comment anonymously or be required to identify themselves.

Print newspapers and magazines only publish signed letters to the editor and almost all verify the sender’s identity before publication. But again, this costs money and time.

Most news websites encourage comments and allow a great deal of freedom for commenters to say pretty much anything they want as long as it isn’t hate speech or obscene. The result is indeed a free-for-all of opinion, from right to left and, in some cases, well outside the generally accepted bounds of reality.

Isn’t this a good thing? the argument goes. Shouldn’t we encourage as much discussion as possible?

I’ve always thought so. But lately I wonder if the discussion is really serving the needs of our audience. As I read the comments on stories about the health care debate in the United States, so many seemed be little more than pre-cooked soundbites and talking points of the left and the right. There is little actual discussion as partisans on both sides fire salvos of invective at each other. And on stories that deal with Middle East, the divide is even more pronounced. Is this useful, or is it more like shouting at the television set–and just about as effective?

So what? I’ve been told. Is this really any different than Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where speakers can mount a soapbox and expound on pretty much anything they want to? Well, actually it is. In Hyde Park, you can see who’s doing the speaking.

Would the online debate among commenters be stifled by requiring commenters to sign their real names? I suspect some would be less likely to want to attach their names to their opinions and some would sign false names but I also believe we might get more thoughtful comments. And I believe commenters would be less likely to throw insults at an identifiable person than at an abstraction like johnny99gogo.

Of course, this may be an argument for the last century, anyway. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have changed the ways people share their thoughts with each other by promoting more selective communities. The comments section on stories and blogs may already be a dinosaur.

What do you think? Are there other ways to promote smarter, more civil discourse.

Chime in. But could you sign your real name?

Dean Wright
(formerly johnny99gogo)

Comments
7 comments so far

Dean, you might have noted that when you sign up for a Reuters commenting account, you’re asked to provide a screen name. In the instructions for choosing a screen name, it says this:

“Please enter a unique screen name so that you can participate and interact with other users on our site. Please note that you will not be able to change your screen name, once it has been created. Your screen name should be between 3-15 characters in length and must be a combination of letters and numbers. For security purposes, it is recommended that you use a name that does not identify you.”

This of course is silly, and it’s not even true: one glance at my screen name (which does identify me) will show that it doesn’t include any numbers. But still, we’re *telling* people not to use their real names, and then preventing them from changing *to* their real names.

I’d also like to step up and defend my commenters, in particular, who are extremely smart, and help me out a lot, and have extremely sophisticated discussions. Picking more or less at random, look at this blog entry from yesterday. I don’t think the anonymity of the commenters hurts the quality of the discussion there. In my experience, high-level blog posts tend to generate high-level discussions, and the converse is true too.

As for news stories, that’s a different issue, and there’s a case to be made that objective news stories don’t really need a comments stream attached at all; such streams rarely add value, in my view, and normally have much more noise than signal.

The fact is that in my field of finance (which is of course very important to Reuters), there’s an enormous number of people who know a great deal about what they’re talking about, but who simply can’t use their real name. Let’s not ban these people, who are the most valuable commenters of all. Please.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

Faced with a world of ID Theft, Information Confiscation, and purely unfriendly cyber schemes; One with a knowledge, or computer based, finance related assets or skill for the aquisition of International ‘nominal’ data, the hesitency of stating “real” names seems to be popular. The fact that these people want to be interactive and participate in public discussions are positive and their identification perhaps arbitrary should in no way deem them less vital in such forums.

Posted by Decibil | Report as abusive

Unless/until you devise a mechanism to verify that a person using a “real” name is actually using their legal, verifiable, name, what’s the difference between that and a pseudonym? Further, given that many names are hardly unique, how much more identifying information will you mandate in the name of “accountability”? John Smith 1 and John Smith 2 must be distinguished if this exercise is to have merit, but how? Address? Home phone number? How much of that do you want to reveal to bots and harvesters and hackers, all in order to say “Bush sucks!”, or whatever?

Consider, for example, that there are real people named “Homer Simpson”, “George Bush” (other than the assorted ex-Presidents), and so on. Would the “real name” software allow posts to come from such names? If so, how will it verify the poster who claims he really is named that, is? Require a credit card to post? Some other form of ID? The higher the barrier to entry, the more people will just say to hell with it — and the more voices you exclude. Some people don’t have credit cards, some people are posting outside the US, etc. Will your software have dozens of different means of verifying identity? Or will it just have some brain-dead algorithm which tries to “figure out” if a name is “real” or not?

REPUTATION is needed, on any given site, and reputation should be linked to a unique name on that site. A person either earns the respect of his fellow commentators over time… or he doesn’t. Mechanisms to filter or limit first-time or low-count posters, posters who have been given negative reputation scores, etc, all come together to create a more useful community. Pursuing “real names” is a fruitless endeavor, and it’s a way to sidestep the issue of paying for decent moderation and forum software that supports the creation of reputation.

Posted by LizardSF | Report as abusive

Okay. Very, very simple. I dont know why there is so much fuss about this:

MEDIUM controls the discussion. You dont need to allow things you dont want to in your own website. This is not a public service and nobody is entitled to anything you dont want to entitle them with.

So all you shrieking punks about anonymity can shut it or go to your own freaking site if you dont like this one.

THats my take.

Posted by AlexBorges | Report as abusive

There is no freedom of speech unless there is anonymity. Forcing people to use their name will just force them to lie – as they have to do in the real world. And they will hate you for it, and be a little less angry at the world in general.

Posted by AntonBerg | Report as abusive

There are many reasons to oppose forcing people to use their real identities in online discussions so I’ll run through a few of them.

Uniqueness. there’s currently 3 people where I work with the exact same name as me and over the years I’ve run into plenty more who share my name. Googling my exact real name gives me 200,000 results. googling any of the examples you gave turned up only a few hundred each.
If you want to have a distinct online identity real names don’t cut it.

Anonymity lets everyone join a discussion on an equal footing. When I was a teenager I was often annoyed that in real life my opinion would be ignored simply because of my age. Meanwhile old fools in a nice suit would be listened to because they looked businesslike. Online I could comment behind an anonymous screen-name which didn’t give away anything about my age, sex, race, religion, appearance or anything else of that ilk. And people would respond to what I wrote, not who or what I was.A well sourced, well written, well argued post by someone behind an anon screen-name can only stand on it’s own merits. I cannot stress the value of this enough.It meant being treated like just another human being.

I was always told to not give out personal information online. When I was a teenager that was just plain old common sense, you didn’t give your real name, you didn’t give your address, you didn’t identify yourself. That was the norm. in theory anonymity kept you from getting a knock on the door from some creepy wierdo. in practice there aren’t that many wierdos and now the culture has changed and every 13 year old posts everything about themselves on their facebook along with comments about the route they like to walk home from school and pictures of themselves. I don’t think this is a positive change but that’s just my gut feeling.

If I had to give my real identity I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking freely.
And I’m not talking about spewing racial abuse.
I wouldn’t want to walk into an interview one day and be greeted with
“hello [real name]
I see here from the standard web crawl on you that you are pro-choice and have publicly protested against companies being allowed lobby government. I’m sorry but you’re not the kind of person we’re looking for since the HR manager here is a devout christian and lobbying is very important to this company”
or more likely just be quietly dropped after they see my name attached to some comments they don’t like.
If I can’t talk anonymously I would always have to fear reprisals from people who simply disagree with my views.

Posted by ThirstyHobo | Report as abusive

The problem is, there is no universal way to verify that someone is who they say they are. This problem is present in all forms of communication, including face-to-face.

If you take away anonymous activity, people will just lie to remain anonymous, and that is far more damaging to the person being impersonated than to the person who is anonymous.

Online video games are an extreme version of online discussion forums, often populated with people of various intellectual capacities, opinions, and technical expertise.

Take a minute and check out any MMO game, ones that are “free” to play, do absolutely no verification in the US, Canada, or Australia. As such, this results in such a low barrier of entry, much like forums, that anyone can impersonate anyone, or make as many sock-puppet accounts to advance their agenda. Then of course there is the spam.

On a Pay-to-play type of game (and paid-membership required forums like Something Awful), raises the bar to that of how much money someone is willing to sink into advancing their cause, or resort to taking over other peoples accounts. If you happen to have an unpopular opinion, you could be banned, and to come back, you have to again register, lie about who you are, and cough up more money.

It still does not establish that the person is who they say they are.

Maybe if some form of ID card or something was required to be plugged into the computer in order to post pseduo-anonymously, that a third party can verify (eg like how I’m using Twitter) certain identities can be verified as being non-throwaway. My identity at Reuters blogs is also my Twitter, blogger, and a dozens of other sites. Unfortunately one can not be expected to remember a unique login for every single site they wish to use, even once.

But the right solution is to raise or lower the barrier to entry depending on how mature your audience is and how much staff you can dedicate to it. If too much time is spent moderating spam (see reCaptcha) from the real comments, then the barrier to entry needs to be raised. If most of the comments appear to be rubbish (eg “soundbites”) then maybe paid membership is an option, leaving only those who actually take a discussion seriously to participate.

It’s my personal opinion that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not everyone’s opinion is welcome everywhere. One does not have the right to be anonymous, and they are free to take their discussion elsewhere. However one should not suddenly switch from being Anonymous to using real names (see Blizzard Software), as this violates the users trust.

All that happens when you start posting peoples real names against their wishes, is that people lie more, or post names with the intent of subverting it (eg posting names of their enemies and people they hate.) Nobody wants a stalker, and nobody wants to be fired from their job because someone happened to make up a fictitious “you” to post libel.

Posted by Kisai | Report as abusive
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