Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 4)

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…

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10 Responses to “Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 4)”

  1. -dsr- Says:

    Context: a few months ago I started co-moderating rec.audio.high-end. You know, Usenet. I’m a frequent reader of several other groups. I still consider Usenet read through a good threading interface the standard to which all others should aspire.

    I have seen communities thrive on partial or total pseudonymity, and survive moderated anonymity, but it takes much more dedicated work than most groups are willing to put in to survive loose anonymity. (I’ll define loose anonymity as the ability of anyone, anywhere, to easily add content without maintaining an identity that can be used for reputation.) The unmoderated newsgroups which have survived in loose anonymous conditions have largely done so by having unofficial moderators: a set of frequent contributors who reliably respond to specific violations of the community mores in specific ways. They can’t stomp on trolls very well, but they do try.

  2. Chad Says:

    Pseudonymity is definitely where things are at. Are going. Have been. Back to the rise of Usenet and IRC, and forward to the ever connected glut of information out there, Pseudonymity allows one to build up all the good things about an identity, primarily reputation. At the same time, it can be used to separate the identity from the individual. There are pockets of outrage against those who massivly collect and coordinate personal information. These pockets usually arise when the information is lost, used for advertising, sold to the highest bidder, etc. As the tools to gather and correlate this information grow more sophisticated I think there will be further pushes for people to develop psedonymity. The hard part will be making it difficult for the data collectors to breach that identity barrier.

  3. metahacker Says:

    The key is persistent identity. Anonymity, pseudoanonymity, and identifiable identity are side issues for this facet of community. Persistent identity allows social punishments (ostracism, usually) to stick, but lso allows reputation to grow. Trolling depends on no one on the internet knowing you’re a troll; persistent identity makes this hard to do twice.

  4. metahacker Says:

    I should also point out that *requiring* an identity makes it possible for banishment to occur. Sock puppeteering of course can still occur, but places like LJ, where your degree of credibility is to large extent visible by things outside your control (a history of posts, plus your in-degree — how many people have friended *you*), it is very hard to manufacture realistic sock puppets.

    I think anonymous contributions are still important. But as with Slashdot and other early communities, the act of taking on the mantle of the Anonymous Coward is inherently stigmatic; it is a role anyone can assume, but makes your actions suspect. In my own LJ, I screen all comments from anonymous for review; this allows anonymous contributions, while retaining a level of civil discourse. In essence, I moderate, with blacklisting for registered users’ comments, and whitelisting for anonymous comments.

  5. Justin Says:

    All correct, but I generally consider persistent identity to be pretty much the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. It’s true that that’s not quite dictionary-perfect, but in practice it’s what matters. I consider someone “anonymous” if their identity is not attached to anything persistently, “pseudonymous” if that identity at least carries over from message to message.

    (But this is a good point, and I’ll need to watch myself on it. I’ve just amended the notes about the future post on pseudonymity to talk about it…)

  6. Monica Says:

    The only remaining value of anonymous posting (as opposed to pseudonymous) I can think of is technical, not social: account management. If I have to create an account with yet another site to comment on your blog, I’m not going to — I’ll post “anonymously” (albeit signed/linked somewhere, as I do here) if permitted and not comment if not. (Yes, this can be abused easily, which is unfortunate.) I think this use case will diminish over time, as OpenID or something like it becomes more widespread.

    The trick with an online identity is to create it once, not dozens of times.

  7. Justin Says:

    Oh, absolutely. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why I am trying so hard to make CommYou *not* a social network — I don’t want to contribute to account pollution. In my opinion, it’s important that systems start dealing with the concept of distributed identity…

  8. Recent Links Tagged With "anonymity" - JabberTags Says:

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  9. serakit Says:

    There’s also the idea of “multiple pseudonymity” to consider, which does effectively allow a certain amount of anyonmity: having separate identities on each site that have little or nothing to do with one another. If I had to maintain one consistent pseudonym across the entire internet, even if I ensured it had nothing to do with me in real life, there’s some stuff I currently do that I definitely wouldn’t be doing.

    Then again, the lengths I went for multiple pseudonymity were also part of why you thought I was a troll initially. So it has advantages and disadvantages.

  10. Justin Says:

    Yep. Multiple pseudonymity matters greatly for some people, not at all for others. (I’m currently wrestling with its implications for CommYou: it’s important enough that I want to eventually support it, but it’s tricky to do really well.)

    The trick with multiple pseudonyms is kind of like the difficulty of doing multiple personae in the SCA: it’s easy to do, but hard to do *well*, because it’s difficult to put enough work into each. Pseudonymity (indeed, identity in general) is all about reputation — people gradually put trust into your online identity. If you maintain multiple pseudonyms that are really distinct, each of those has to work up that trust separately.

    Of course, the reality is that multiple pseudonymity is rarely pure. In practice, you maintain multiple online personae, but there are usually some people who know about all of them. This makes it quicker and easier to build up the additional pseudonyms, because you have people who can vouch for you and help you work your way into the community.

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