Archive for August, 2008

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 4)

August 12, 2008

or, The Future of Commenting and the Death of Anonymity

[My apologies for going silent for a couple of weeks — since so many of my current readers are in the SCA (the mysteriously tech-heavy medieval club that I’m in), I decided to take a break while Pennsic (the SCA’s biggest annual event) floated on by. Now that everyone’s back, it’s time to finish off this series on Commenting, with a guess about where things are going.]

Several weeks ago, I was struck by the article “Post Apocalypse” in Time Magazine. The article is about the way that comment threads on blogs tend to degenerate, and the disconnect between social standards online and off. It’s largely correct in its observations, but stops before making any predictions about how this will all shake out. Okay, I’ll put my head in the noose and venture a guess.

My prediction: purely anonymous commenting will largely go away over the next ten years, because it doesn’t scale up to Internet levels.

The problem is community standards. You put comment capabilities online largely because you want to build communities. (In general, commercial sites want communities because they build stickiness, loyalty, and all that good stuff talked about earlier.) But communities require community standards, and anonymity is poisonous to those.

Anonymity breeds trolls, and it takes only a modest number of trolls to poison a community.   I’ll talk about this at more length later, but suffice it to say, you can’t allow trolls to run amok if you want a healthy online community.  Yes, everyone likes to believe that their little community is all nice and happy and good, and no one would dream of hurting it.  But time and again, I’ve watched those communities self-destruct because they didn’t have the wherewithal to enforce at least basic standards of politeness.

Note that community standards do not necessarily mean Emily Post grade politeness. In some communities, a refined and clever snarkiness is the standard. The classic example of this was the newsgroup talk.bizarre, the better part of 20 years ago now.  In its glory days, t.b was a place where novices feared to tread for fear of getting roasted into embers by the brilliant flames that would result from saying something dumb — but it was damned fun it you knew what you were getting into.

And yet, even t.b eventually self-destructed due to witless trolls.  In this particular case, it wasn’t that they were exceptionally nasty (nasty was part of the t.b social contract), but simply because they didn’t understand that cleverness was crucial to making it the place it was.  The community had no mechanism to enforce its rather refined standards, so it gradually degenerated into fairly uninteresting rants.

So I predict that anonymity is a dying idea online.  Pseudonymity — the ability to define a consistent online persona that is difficult or impossible to relate to your real-world one — will stick around, and probably become far more important.  (And more on that topic later, because it’s a major subject unto itself.) But being able to post anything, any time, with no traceability or consequences is simply too harmful to the social fabric.  Some major systems (such as Facebook) are already pushing hard against the idea, and I expect this trend to continue and grow.

Opinions?  What are some cases where online anonymity is actually useful?  Are there any where well-implemented pseudonymity isn’t as good or better?  I have a strong personal stake in this matter: CommYou doesn’t really support anonymity, and for the moment I’m disinclined for it to ever do so, so I’d be very interested to hear arguments in favor of it…