Why ending anonymity online won’t make blogs a better place


Pete and Travis have performed wonders in cleaning up the discourse here at Whale Oil Beef Hooked. At first we discussed the light use of the ban hammer to rid ourselves of genuine trolls, or people who failed to take the clear warnings. Now I pretty much leave them to it.

I do prefer a light hand and I think they get the balance right.

Some journalists, notably Fran O’Sullivan and other commentators here and world wide think that the answer to increasing civility is removing anonymity of commenters. I disagree…especially when we are discussing sensitive subjects, like mental health issues or cannabis then having anonymity allows people to share personal experiences they otherwise might not have shared if not anonymous.

The Guardian has an article about the move of the Huffington Post to remove anonymity for commenters and they note that it won;t work as they believe it will.

Using real names is often cited as the magic pill to prevent this type of unpleasantness. Putting aside the important point that implementing such a system is technically complex and virtually unworkable, anyone who has watched two friends mud-slinging below a Facebook status update knows real identities don’t bring instant politeness. 

The issue is far more complex. There are a variety of psychological factors that contribute to people being mean online – summed up by many as the disinhibition effect. One factor is dissociative anonymity – the effect of not knowing, or being able to see, the person on the other end of the comments. This disassociation can make it easier for us to be meaner than we might be in person. So, just because they use real names doesn’t mean Huffington Post readers are going to be any nicer to each other.

As I said I think there is a better way and I believe that we are getting the right balance. You need to encourage discussion but also encourage differing opinions. Echo chambers are boring. Just go read the comments at The Standard or Public Address…sure they get heaps of comments but they are all basically a variation on a theme of agreeing with the authors….because dissent has been smacked out and stifled.

There are better ways. We need to think about designing social spaces online that highlight constructive interaction and isolate and, if necessary, punish those who cause trouble. There are organisations that are working to crack this – Gawker and Reddit have proved that you can showcase higher-quality debate given the right system. There is still work to be done, of course.

Most importantly, what these organisations, and the Guardian, recognise is that by ending anonymity the Huffington Post is going to lose something very important. Providing an alias allows readers to post personal experiences that they otherwise would not be able to for fear of personal or career repercussions. In some cases, it allows them to post without fear for their lives.

I agree. Anonymity has its place…incivility is not a factor of anonymity.

There are so many important world events that have relied on people being able to transmit information using pseudonyms – Egypt, the Arab spring and protests in Turkey and Brazil, to name just a few. Without the facility for commenters to use pseudonyms, the Guardian would never be able to have such rich and insightful discussions on emotive topics such as abortionadoption and depression.

Restricting what their readers can contribute to the Huffington Post in order to remove an abusive minority is closing down an important route into the site’s journalism. It seems a big – too big – price to pay.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.