Anonymous comments aren’t about the conversation at all

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We need to take a stand on the idea of anonymous comments.  And the stand is — they need to go away.

I think this problem has its roots in the newspaper industry.  When they starting creating digital versions — they wanted to take advantage of the interactivity of the web.  And in the newspaper industry — it's all about the numbers (subscribers, pass along rate, etc) so it's no surprise that they wanted a huge volume of comments as well.

No doubt, someone told them that people will comment with more frequency if you don't ask for their name or contact information so voila — the anonymous or the "use a nickname, not a real name" comment was born.

Sadly, this has seeped into blogs as well.  And as more companies wade into the social media waters — many marketing types, looking to justify the time and efforts spent on the tools — point to the comment count with pride.  

But what really are we counting?

I don't care if you're talking about a traditional newspaper's website or a blog — when you allow anonymous commenting, you disrespect the topic, the conversation and the readers.

These are not conversations — they are verbal vomit.

It's perfectly logical that the anonymity invites people to behave in ways they wouldn't if they had to identify themselves.  And it swings to both ends of the spectrum.  On the one hand — they're vicious in their personal attacks, cruel comments and judgments.  On the flip side, they can completely bypass the topic all together in an attempt to get some link love/attention for their product or service.

So what do we do about it?  We say no.

We write to our newspapers and ask them to actually be responsible for creating real conversations on their sites.  By demanding, just like they do in their traditional letters to the editor section, that commenters be identified (and verified) by name and city.

In terms of social media — if you own a blog, fight back.  Here are some of the things I've done to combat the problem:

  • Have a stated comment policy (see the visual above) that says you will delete anonymous comments
  • Actually delete them — even if they are relevant (you can e-mail the person and ask them to re-submit, using their name)
  • Close comments after 30 days (many of the back link seekers go into your archives to tuck key word rich comments where they think you'll ignore them)
  • Actually respond to the comments — you'll get lots more of them if people think they're not talking into a black hole

Whether it's someone calling themselves "MoonDog127" and ripping into someone based on a story in a digital newspaper or it's "Korean Wedding Dress" leaving 27 random comments on your blog — we need to recognize the conversation deserves better.

What do you think?  Is there ever a place for anonymous commenting?

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22 comments on “Anonymous comments aren’t about the conversation at all

  1. Connie Reece says:

    Amen, amen, amen. Anonymous comments cheapen the conversation and make trolling too easy. I applaud the way you stated your comment policy (and will probably steal it. 🙂

    There are a few topics where I think posting under an assumed name or nickname may be appropriate. Political blogs, where using your real name could result in professional damage or personal injury. Sensitive social topics.

    For example, I frequent a blog about the Mormon fundamentalist polygamist group (FLDS) that has a large compound in Texas. Some former members comment under pseudonyms. Through the back channels, we’ve figured out who some of them are but we want to maintain their privacy so we don’t publicize the fact. But I don’t even know who the admin of the blog is. I do know from months of reading and posting that the information is reliable.

    But outside of a few narrow instances like that, anonymous comments should be discounted and/or deleted.

  2. Marcy Darcy says:

    I use 3 handles – err, now 4 with “Marcy Darcy” – when I’m online and only one of them is my real name.

    When I post a comment online, it’s not about backlinking, my real contact e-mail is always used (my trust, in the few bloggers I frequently read via RSS, that I won’t be spammed), and in the few replies I make I try to leave relevant comments that won’t be construed as, err, “verbal vomit.”

    The point, as I see it, is instigating conversation. In my case, it’s not about hiding from you (since the you can see my paid – not free – email address and are free to let me know about any issues you have with a comment).

    It’s more about not being easily tracked online by others since I have a job that’s not related to my personal views. For others, it may be a straight up privacy issue. Like a battered woman reaching out on a blog.

    My personal life and my business life.

    Online it’s ‘never the twain shall meet’: that’s my choice.

    You not posting comments from anon or pseudonyms, well, that’s your choice.

    While I don’t know how much spam you get, Drew, this may be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  3. ScLoHo (Scott Howard) says:

    Dear Drew,

    I have gone to monitoring comments on my blogs before they appear publicly, due to one of the problems you mentioned, spammers who try and ride on the shirt tales of the post to get folks to visit their site.

    I don’t mind anonymous comments, but the person posting them loses out because there is no way to learn more about them and their life/cause/business/organization, so the networking stops.

  4. Tim says:

    Anonymous comments also disrespect the writer;) But we have to realize that when the web was first created, anonymity was one of the first things people enjoyed about the web. People could go around acting poorly, spewing nonsense and hurtful things about anybody and anything, and not experience any consequences.

    I think only recently (8 years or so) is the web starting to experience the shift to being an extension of a persons self. Social media and blogging have contributed extensively to this shift and I totally agree that anonymity needs to be the first thing to go.

  5. Duff says:

    There are several good reasons to use anonymous comments. One is for topics where anonymity is important–forums for abuse victims, discussions of possible corruption where the accused is known to be litigious, etc. Another is for contexts in which one’s life circumstances dictate discretion in online conversations–where you don’t want your name showing up in Google for conversations that you don’t want to involve your boss or family, etc.

    Anonymity certainly does increase overall trolling volume though, so it is a tradeoff.

  6. Duff says:

    Almost forgot–there are some professions in which one would likely want to post anonymously in conversations online: police officer, lawyer, psychotherapist, even high school math teacher. Take the last example–a math teacher is interested in the political debate over medical marijuana but doesn’t necessarily want her high school students smoking pot. Should she be forced to voice her opinions (which may change as she engages, but her posts last forever) using her real name?

  7. Megan Horn says:

    I find it frustrating when someone anonymously comments. If they put in a fake name and e-mail address, I have no way of contacting them if I want to continue the conversation. Plus, if they don’t take the time to check back, they never see my response (and I do respond to all legitimate comments).

    I do understand why someone would want to post anonymously–if it’s a controversial topic or a comment that could hurt his/her career. But why would someone post something that would do so?

    I think that if you don’t want your name on it, don’t post it at all.

  8. Anonymous comments do actual have a place, such as on humor blogs and other high volume, low intelligence (probably the wrong word) sites, where the reader is not expected to engage their brain.

    On blogs and sites where opinion is expressed and thought required, I find that even if an anonymous commenter isn’t trolling, their comment has far less weight and respect as they appear to lack the conviction to put their name to their words.

    That lack of ownership or personal responsibility for ones words is what rapidly allows conversations to degrade into the equivalent of verbal diarrhea.

  9. Drew,

    Think I am with many here, that anonymous comments have a place. I have my public profile, comments that can be either personal or professional, that are with my real name, which I’d guess Google could find.

    Then there are a few of the “handles” comments out there, things that are usually personal and private. It’s not often I post under those handles, and it’s also done to protect my name and email from spam and “verbal vomit.” Mostly I stick with Megan’s “if I don’t want my name on it, I don’t post.”

    As to my blog, I block any spam or anonymous comments, period. But for media outlets, it’s harder. Many of us, myself included, won’t toss in our two pennies if registration or name disclosure is required. For a magazine, paper or blog looking to develop conversation with readers, it’s a Catch-22.

    Paul also makes a good point about the responsibility of the blog owner or magazine: moderation. Someone needs to step up, block trolls, manage the conversation and keep it on topic. FWIW.

  10. Will Speck says:

    I find Yahoo! to be a huge force in anonymous comments. On their stock boards, under the cloak of anonymity, you will find more hateful, racist, younameit(anonymously) comments than you can shake a stick at. Stuff people never say when their name is attached- or if they aren’t wearing a hood.

    Yahoo! has had a huge audience since the mid-nineties, before most newspapers even allowed comments.

    Great post. Thanks

  11. Guy Martin says:

    Drew,

    This is an interesting discussion you’ve started here, and while I can see some places where anonymous comments *might* be needed, I tend to focus on this from a community perspective.

    Honestly, even small personal blogs can and do develop some form of ‘community’. Larger blogs, or discussion forums on software development groups (my bailiwick) can easily devolve into a morass of (and I like your characterization) verbal vomit if anonymous comments are allowed.

    However, a bigger thing for me as a community manager is that anonymity breaks the trust model formed either implicitly or explicitly by the community interactions. I tried to capture my thoughts on the topic in a blog post I wrote in early 2009: http://blogs.open.collab.net/oncollabnet/2009/01/trust-in-commun.html

    For me, Jeff Jarvis summed it up nicely with this quote (referenced in my blog): “The value of public discourse and engagement around content/information/knowledge vastly outweighs most of the privacy concerns most of the time.”

    Thanks for bringing this topic up – it’s important for people to understand that, short of questions of personal safety (battered woman’s groups, etc.), owning your opinions is crucial to the fabric of trust.

  12. Guy (with whom I’ve hashed this topic before), in his last two comments (a quote and a comment), can lead us out of the woods. I have no objections to the quoted statistical argument, “engagement outweighs most of the concerns, most of the time.”

    And I think Guy himself captures what may be the central determinant: the fabric of trust. The cases where anonymity is not merely acceptable, but actually crucial, are just exactly those where “the fabric of trust” is already so riven that it can’t be restored.

  13. RHS76 says:

    Drew, as someone who has been on the other side receiving comments for the past four years, I can attest to the anonymous posters post childish and comments that are out of line.

    These individuals do not care about establishing a conversation. They are “hit-and-run” posters. They’ll write something to denigrate you or write anything unrelated to the topic, and then disappear, without commenting again, for fear of being called out.

    Another part of this topic is with the newspapers on-line. When I receive a notification to review a comment to my blog, I will read it and if it’s not suitable to post, I delete it. Only if the papers will do the same.

    What I hate more than anything is someone who posts a comment on the Register’s website, and click on the “recommend” button to glorify their own comments, as if anyone agrees with it.

  14. Hema says:

    I had thoroughly gone through your blog, i liked it & i also understood the power of blogging. Now i decided to start my own blog. I had never been interested in keeping a blog until I saw how interesting yours is, now I am inspired! By the way I will also be using the same plug-ins which you are using.

  15. Paul Hebert says:

    Great idea Drew. Love to do something similar. Can you share how you put the custom info in teh “post a comment” section. I googled but couldn’t find a good source for updating the comments section via CSS in typepad. Any help would be appreciated.

  16. Everyone —

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this topic. I agree that on some blogs where very personal information is being shared, there might be a place for anonymous comments. But as Will suggested — the cloak of anonymity mostly gives people permission to be jerks.

    I think in the end…it is as Guy quotes Jeff Jarvis — it’s about trust. And I find it difficult to trust someone who won’t even share their first name.

    Lots of food for thought in this discussion — thanks to you all!

    Drew

  17. Paul,

    It’s a template module that triggers catcha and the whole form itself. I can e-mail the code to you, if that would be helpful.

    Drew

  18. Is there ever a place for anonymous commenting?

    Only during confession.

  19. Drew,

    I agree with you in theory, but there’s one big problem with real names — how do you verify that they’re a real person? If I say that I’m Eric Smithington, how do you know I am? The honest folk will leave their names, but the dishonest folk will hide behind another pseudonym that just sounds real. Is that any better?

    Interested in your thoughts on this.

    Drew

  20. Amitk Seo says:

    I’ll definitely refer this content to all my close friends and colleagues. http://www.optimizationindia.com/

  21. Lucas Neill says:

    This is another one of the reasons I really love the DISQUS comment system. Once you register on one site, it is good on all. Plus they support OpenID, Facebook and all the other major standards.

  22. Lucas,

    You are not alone in your DISQUS love! I think it is one of the most popular of comment management systems. Did you check out any of the others before landing on DISQUS?

    Drew

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