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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  • la la land

    I completely agree – you have the freedom to say exactly what you want under a pseudonym – often we are restricted by sensitivities – eg work, clients, circle of friends, family etc and would rather keep some of our ideas to ourselves in public but want to be free to express ourselves on blogs etc.

  • unitedtribes

    All i won’t to do is hyd tha fack I ciant spill

  • blokeintakapuna

    …and also having a credible venue/platform for one’s rant is also important (to the commentators) but more importantly blogs such as WOBH balances the MSM and keeps them honest… or should I say – highlights their dishonesty, bias and attempts at making the news instead of providing balanced pieces on the topic.
    Plus – WOBH allowing most everyone the ability to comment – without heavy-handed censorship has meant that WOBH has become the #1 political bellwether blog in all the land – even having a huge influence over the demise of the politically inept.
    WOBH not only leads the way… it does so by a huge margin – so great work team. Please keep it up!

  • GregM

    Yes agree, but will add that it certainly helps credibility and keeps it a bit more real having some commenters using their real name, and I thank them for that. I’m halfway there, but I am a shy wee thing…

    • John Bore

      How do we know your name is Greg? What if it is Wayne Kerr and you are a transgender?
      Even if a real name is used nobody will really know for sure if it is a real name or if it is a more subtle alias.
      Does Discuss ask anyone for ID before permitting an account be opened? Well no. So it’s impossible to stop people hiding behind fakies and slapstick names.

      • GregM

        If people want to use an alias, that’s fine. Remember that the mods can see your real email address, they know if you are using your real name. That’s good enough for me.

        • Nope. Discuss doesn’t confirm the email address. Many people have fake ones. IP numbers are a different kettle of fish. Those are generally genuine. But a determined technically savvy troll is unstoppable. We haven’t had one yet, but our time will come. We’ve had a chat about this a while ago in fact. Personally I think there will be a few attempts at trying to disrupt WOBH in the run-up to the general election. It has been attempted in the past, and it would be silly to assume it won’t be tried again. But that fits in the category of deliberate disruption by opponents as opposed to… let’s call them ‘odd people’ :)

          • GregM

            Didn’t know that, thanks for the heads up.

          • Polish Pride

            I think regular posters are more than capable of handling trolls :)

          • opusx

            I like trolls, they make the day more fun.

          • FredFrog

            Very easy to hide, should one want to. Disposable email addressess (There are many providers of services like this out there), anonymous proxies to hide your actual IP address, etc. Although why anyone would bother is beyond me, we live in a democracy where posting on a blog is not going to get you shot.

      • I’v actually met Greg, and it is his real name.

        • Sicko

          So is he a transgender and most importantly does he have a genuine stratocaster?

          • yes and no. I’ll leave it up to you to match each answer the relevant question.

          • GregM


            1: Bent, but a gent.
            2: No. It’s a Schecter stiletto extreme 5 Bass.

    • Allan

      Same sentiments here, I feel I should use my real first name but keep my last name hidden. Mainly I do this so im not using a pseudonym and that I should stand behind the rubbish comments I post!

  • Owl

    i think if you make money from the internet – then yes you have to be in the public face – if not and in my case – I was invited by Helen Kelly and Gary Parsloe to join social networks to voice my anger by using social networks.

    If they want to engage the public using such tools and lets not forget they make money out of their industry then they have to put a face to the name.

    They opened the door and as i always said – my observations is no more than me writing a letter to an editor.

    In that case my name Owl is private to WO – my observations are for all who read WOBH.

    I enjoy the privacy WO has entrusted me and thank him for his professionalism on this matter.

    • Bunswalla

      I have a theory on the OWL – I think it’s really Cam’s polite alter-ego. Let’s face it nobody would take him seriously if he was polite all the time, so he needs a decoy persona to present some well-researched data without the trolls pouncing on him.

      And since you raised the issue of making money from the internet, that just confirms my brilliant theory.

      You see, OWL is just an acronym for OIL WHALE LIMITED – the commercial arm of WO but cunningly reversed to throw us off the scent.

      A clever attempt, but a conspiracy-theorist such as me will always see through smoke-screens like that.

      • OK, now explain the POLICY PARROT acronym?

        • Bunswalla

          Pffft – easy. Picking Over Lies In Council Yearly budgets is the first part, but it doesn’t tell us who’s behind the comments.

          So logically, it must be Pete And Roving Reporter Otherwise known as Travis.

      • Owl

        I can assure you and the readers – i am neither W.O. alter-ego nor a commercial arm.

        I am at best Joe Public – I defend unions members rights and keep union executives honest and dabble in political commentary on occassions

        I have only meet W.O. once about 18 months ago

        • Bunswalla

          Your denials only serve to prove my theory, explaining is losing Owl.

          Or should I say, Cameron? Bwaahaahahahahaaaa

        • opusx

          The ghost in the machine aye?

  • johnbronkhorst

    Personally, it’s not a problem for me! But each to his own. If you need a bit of anonymity to express yourself, well so be it. So long as you do, don’t sit on the side line, get stuck in.
    Decide what your opinion is, share your knowledge and express yourself!!
    BUT…don’t bitch about it, when someone has a go at you for your opinion!!
    HTFU and I will try to do the same!!

  • Jessie White

    Huffington Post has had to date 260 million comments and has 40 moderator’s and they cannot keep up with the trolls so for them anonymity does not work.
    I would agree that WOBH and their mods are very effective, thou I do miss reading unsol and mediaan comments

    • They would both still be here if one hadn’t started a silly campaign changing her comments hours and days after leaving them and then trying to get around – what was at the time – a week off, and the other leveled two unsubstantiated accusations of being a paedophile and/or having a child porn collection at blog staff. I have an extremely high tolerance level for free speech and let the FIRST smear go as a ‘heat of the moment’ comment, but after the second, what are we to do? The two people you miss were the authors of their own downfall, and they could simply not continue to be allowed to carry on. There are hundreds of people that manage to participate without pushing us into having to act. It’s really simple: don’t lie, attack the topic not the person, keep the language sensible. Within that, 99.9% of the people here get on just fine.

      • Jessie White

        yes I do understand that, and followed the demise of the 2 commenters I have been reading WOBH for some years now and was just stating how I feel but thank you petal for your in depth reply have a great day :-)

        • guest

          Pete is talking crap – no demise, merely a case of parasitic wasps turning on those who dare to step away from the party line. Cameron & the mods will know that for me the change came when he called a 10 year old boy sad fat crap & dumb. An appalling stance by someone who is meant to be a Christian & someone who is a father

          • Just for those who are confused, the above message was left by unsol pretending to be our “Owl”.

          • Agent BallSack

            Owl doesnt use abusive language so we know it’s not him/her

      • GregM

        I did wonder what happened with those two, I missed all of that.

        • When a moderator pings someone, we tend to get one of two responses: 1) oops, no problem, gotcha and 2) an elaborate defence / justification.

          The latter invites debate, causes readers to choose sides, and quickly spirals into something that causes damage to the blog. In addition, I believe there are such things as “death by moderator”, where people pick a fight in the hope it will cause Cam to think less of the moderator, or the readers less of the moderator or Cam, or the blog in general.

          We now have a policy of politely asking commenters to follow the rules. If they go thermonuclear, they are quietly sidelined and spoken to in private. To date, none of them have calmed down and shown us they are in a suitable frame of mind to return.

          But this explains why some people can ‘disappear’ without what would have been a multi-day blood sport public spectacle for everyone to pile into in the past :)

          Trolls will no longer get the payback of a public event.

          • tarkwin

            Haven’t seen kosh lately, has he/she done a name change? Could be worse, people get banned from the standard all the time for failing to follow big brothers official line.

          • kosh103: Teachersrock, Gayguy, Meg

          • Paul / Paul’s partner / Meg / Kosh / Teachersrock / Gayguy are all still with us. Although generally we tend not to put up with people operating multiple accounts, Kosh and husband are a bit like our blog pets.

          • Col

            What about Black Widow and blairmulholland, I seem to have pinched a nerve.

          • Blair is a well known quantity. Google him.

            Black Widow? Let’s see what develops, shall we?

          • Col

            Black Widow just told me she writes for 6 webs after her run and Earl Grey tea? Interesting.

          • Roland

            Was thinking the very same as I roll down the comments, he could get a bit stroppy

      • Youaretalkingbullshitpete

        Hence the reason why you are losing all decent commentary on here Pete – have a look at most of the comments. All waffle no facts & no debate. Even Kimbo prefers Brian Edwards! It seems to me the power has gone to your head to the point that you have clearly merged fact & fiction. You went & deleted my comments on the last post so that only those of the guttersnipes were left, completing distorting the commentary. My comment to Kehua while a little on the nose, was completely in context. He implied he would give opposite answers to me in the questions I posted so I called him on it. So don’t try & claim some kind of moral high ground – there often is none where you, Cameron & Travis are concerned; remember, you are lording over a blog that is not only irrelevant & laughed at in the real world, but one that posts about 10 year old boys & calls them “sad, fat, crap & dumb”. You are also participating on a blog that regularly mocks others for their appearance, sexuality & ideology. I only have to think of the post Travis posted on the Green MP or the many ones Cameron has posted about fat people – ironic given he is fat himself & has a ‘face for radio’. So repeating lies doesn’t make them any more true & taking little swipe at me merely proves case & point – there are plenty of readers on here & anyone who is honest & not being stirrer will back me up: You and the wee gaggle of guttersnipes on here can pat each other on the back as much as you like, but end of the day I know what I have said, the context I said it in & the comments it was in response to. Any comments I deleted on an active post while on this blog was to try & bring the commentary back to the actual issue & I made this very clear in the edited comment that I left behind. Editing comments after you have posted & not declaring it is something most have done & if it doesn’t change the context or is before the other person has replied then so what; if Travis still wants to cry about me changing my post on the fact that I didnt think he could physically lift a car – because he is a dough boy – then who gives a flying fuck. As for my last post, sure I did a lot of editing…..if I was going to go I was going to go giving Cameron a piece of my mind. Once I was sure he had read it I deleted them. I wanted him to make sure while I felt he – not you, not Travis – had the potential to do great things, he will continue to fail, continue to be mocked & ridiculed while he continues to let his ego rule his heart. He needs to ego distinguish people with moral character from the parasitic wasps that have clearly infested this blog – everyone stoops below the moral line at some point in blogging/commenting, but you guys & your wee gaggle of guttersnipes really take the cake as you fail to see the irony in your so-called claim to righteous indignation. You have none. So pull your head in Pete. You are far too old to behave like a child. Prove you are as decent as what your moral outrage claims you are.

        • Here we go. Hi unsol. Why did you have to pretend to be “Owl”? Does this not immediately reduce your argument?


          Thanks for proving my point once again. You are dishonest.

          You are not welcome here. It has been lovely since you chose to stay away, and I would prefer it that if you CAN’T stay away and you HAVE TO do these things, then AT LEAST have the decency not to muddy someone else’s screen name.

          • Too onlookers, and especially those that say they miss unsol, this is the sort of stuff that blog moderators have to deal with. And in this individual’s case, the reason for being removed from the blog was for being dishonest by changing comments frequently without actually indicating what had changed. She did so again in the last few minutes by changing “Owl” to something else, making it look confusing and perhaps even like I don’t know what I’m on about.

            Is it a problem when people change things substantially after the fact?


            A very, very harsh example would be:

            troll: I think all rapists should be shot, are you with me?

            others: “Yes!”

            Then it is changed to

            troll: Would you interfere with children if you could get away with it?

            Comments can be changed for a number of days, and you wouldn’t know she went back and changed the essence of her material after the fact. We caught her at it, and posted a general warning to everyone. She was still not banned. This set off a petulant barrage of comments and edits similar to what you have seen on this post today.

            It was repetitive, deliberate and extremely dishonest.

            If there was ever a clear case of why moderation is needed, unsol provides a textbook example.

          • Jessie White

            wow didn’t that escalate quickly,
            ok I get it now petal
            that unsol uses her anonymity for evil
            and mediaan is just a sanctimonious twat that writes screeds and screeds of un informed words.
            I therefore don’t miss them any more and I am sorry that my comment caused you to have to explain about these two. thanks for the info.
            I will not forget that all commenters are real people
            The good, The bad and The down right ugly.

        • Orange

          That was a weird little rant. Really long sentences too.

        • Col

          Yea bugger off you look like your writing your last Will, so bloody long.

        • opusx

          I’m a zombie idiot…yay! At last label I can be proud of. Before I was just some random middle aged white guy. Now…my life has meaning.
          Take that all you black homosexual cross dressers!

        • Tude

          Thanks Unsol, you have just confirmed what I have believed for along time about our educational institutions……teaching those WHAT to think as they teach them how to write, has been there greatest achievements/downfall. Have you ever tried to Think-Things-Through before sounding off either verbally or keyboard? Why don’t you just bugger off, it has been so nice without you!

    • Mediaan was ejected for a disgusting paedophile smear which she was previously let off for on another occasion.

      • Jessie White

        yes, I followed that from the first comment till mediaan’s last comment.
        on reflection what I should have said was “I miss mediaan comments except those 2”
        have a great day :-)

        • What I found sad was that mediaan was given the chance to withdraw and apologise. In return we were treated to a multi page essay that didn’t show to us that there was any understanding that to label anyone a paedophile without any proof was not an acceptable thing to do to another human being.

          As an aside, if I discover that anyone is a paedophile, my first port of call will be the Police, and not an anonymous slur on a web site.

    • guest

      Thanks Jesse – then you will enjoy my response to Pete

      • I knew this post would be a lighting rod for those who wanted a soap box. The “Owl” above is not “our” Owl, it is unsol doing the very thing unsol got biffed off for.

        Disqus is nice, but from the perspective of a blog moderator it is a nightmare that anyone can impersonate anyone else.

        Attached screenshots added for proof in case things get changed later, as is the MO for this individual.

        • owl

          what is this about?

          • Read on McDuff. Happy to take questions after you read a Case Study in trolling :)

  • Anonymous

    I use anonymous names because my job is such I am we’ll known and it would affect my business. I don’t see any reason why an alias is wrong and it allows me to say what I really think rather than some watered down politically correct statement.
    Too bad if what I say under alias hurts someone’s feelings. Diddums. Freedom of speech should allow us to say what we want. But there are those out there who use the PC agenda as a way of shutting down or watering down the statements of opponents.

    • Agent BallSack

      I am the same. I use my personal email address here so I know that any of the moderators and Cam can see who I am on all my posts, having seen a screenshot of what the moderators see. I prefer to remain anonymous here so I can comment on topics that business customers may not agree too, not for the purposes of trolling others. Plus with well over 2000 posts to me name google would have a freaking field day with my real name should I choose to post under it.

      • Col

        If you cant take it, bugger off, very simple right. I have a name that is one off in NZ, so would hate to up set the rest of my family and friends.

        • Agent BallSack

          Same. Very unusual name and uncommon. I also have beliefs I dont want my family associated with whether they are their thoughts or not. And young children. I have debated blogging here under my name and have linked my facebook page to my disqus profile previously but don’t particularly want to be outed as **** **** ****** is ABS.

          • Col

            I just enjoy getting up people, at the moment I have Black Widow, and blairmulholland regarding JK daughter, getting very personal now.

          • Agent BallSack

            I trolled here initially. Argument is good catharsis and it sharpens your wit. These days I am more opinionated :)

          • Opinion is good, and welcomed, and I generally enjoy the majority of your comments. That’s my compliment quota reached for this year.

          • You’ve gone soft Poulson. You’re outtahere!

          • I recommend you make a complaint to the boss.

          • Bunswalla

            I nearly rode my bike into a ditch when I read that.

          • Hey I said opinion is good, didn’t say I would agree with all of it!

            We need to stop fighting in public like this, it’s hurting the kids.

    • Mr_V4

      “I don’t see any reason why an alias is wrong and it allows me to say
      what I really think rather than some watered down politically correct

      – Sounds like you could be dpf, he can water down water on his blog.

  • Undercover

    Surely we should be able to voice our bigoted opinions including derogatory statements about people?
    And if we want to use an alias then so be it.

  • James Peach

    Unless one uses identification to prove the indentity of a commentator when opening an account it is impossible to stop trolls or alias names being used. These commentary systems are programmes and they are not that sophisticated that they can tell a fake from the real.
    Trolling and derogatory or inflammatory comments from behind the mask of a fake name is path for the course with the internet.
    People need to stop winging about comments. Just don’t read them if you have a penchant for crying every time someone says something you don’t like.

  • What pisses me off about people who post anonymous, they are the people when someone who posts using a real name, then blast out that person’s real name all over social media, if they disagree with them.

    • Those of us that use our names don’t give a shit about that. If we did we wouldn’t be doing it.

      The part that yanks my chain is well known or reasonably well known public figures that hide behind an alias to make comments they would otherwise not make so as not to hurt their public image. Them and people who use several different profiles like we can’t figure out they’re all the same person. Isn’t that right kosh.

      • The only reason I don’t want to use my full name is because I don’t want what I do/say to be searchable on the Internet ad infinitum when people google me.

        Soon my wife will be in a position where her job and what I do here could be the source of her being judged on what I say.

        Similarly, my children will be burdened with what their Dad got up to for years, and their future opportunities may be limited because of it.

        I’m happy to own everything I say or do. What I don’t want is for it to be easily searchable for decades to come whenever someone does “background checks” on my family for employment or other purposes.

        • blokeintakapuna

          Same! Exactly!

        • Mine all changed to Guest when I name changed.

        • Mr_V4

          Well that is an interesting comment considering the stance this blog takes on NSA spying etc, ie “nothing to see here move along”.

  • Annoymous No Name

    you get the good, the bad and the ugly response to what you blogg here, so what? we get it off our chest what we want to say and life goes on, I had to close my FB account down when others don’t like what they read and started to hack and spammed my emails . That’s why being annoymous is ok. you take the good with the nasty and it stops here.

  • Jonathan Pull

    Anonymity to a degree is good.
    Unless you were a bandwagon muppet like me who slung unjustified shit at cam.
    Got pulled up pretty hard and fast but learnt my lesson.
    It has its time and place as I think others have said here.

  • Col

    Ok WO if I step out of line, I m sure the real family will tell me to pull my head in it does happen sometimes.

  • Knucklehead

    I’d lose my job if my name was out there. Someone in my position can’t be seen making inflammatory statements. Whilst I’d like to use my name, the wise choice is therefore posting anonymously.
    There is the benefit that I can call Len Brown a cunt and it is awfully satisfying. Particularly knowing that I sit opposite him from time to time when he agrees to meet.
    I have to deal with him for my job. But he is a snake charmer. If he knew, he’d stop meeting ad my employer would kick me to touch.
    Anonymously calling him things is as good a therapy as one can get.

    • Bunswalla

      Come on mate, how many people can there be called Knucklehead? I’ve only ever heard of one – that Knucklehead McSpasmatron from the SpongeBob Squarepants movie. Is that you?

  • Agent BallSack

    As is shown here, on this very thread – disqus is fallible and so is Huffington Posts scheme. It takes 2 minutes to set up an email account under a false name and that name could be innocuous and innocent until it starts trolling. You still need moderators to weed out inflammable statements and trolling.

    • The email address doesn’t have to be verified either.

      • Roland

        I know, I have heaps for John Campbell

  • I think WhaleOil is one of the best bloggs in the world from this perspetive.
    If a troll fires up it’s because you have managed to land a hit on their psyche.
    A more intelligent person looks at themself at that point and usually moves forward.

    A troll just attacks the person that hit them, until they feel better or get shredded enough to have a memory lapse, so they go away for a longer period of time.

    I really appreciate the latitude WhaleOil gives me, I do bite occasionally …. sorry :-)

    • “If a troll fires up it’s because you have managed to land a hit on their psyche.”

      Excellent analysis.

      • Thanks, I been pondering lately :-)

        • Mr_V4

          You could equally say “if the moderator fires up it’s because you have managed to land a hit on their psyche”.

  • Bad__Cat

    Why do some pseudonyms show up with blue text and others with black text?