Maria Konnikova at the New Yorker writes about the problem created by anonymous online comments: on one hand, they increase interaction and contributions, but on the other, they encourage rude, hostile behavior.
As someone who consumes a fair amount of online news and can’t seem to help but read the comments on stories I know I shouldn’t, I think I have gravitated to the position that anonymity is an overall negative for online discourse. At my own site, for every time an anonymous commenter posts a fair critique of one of my posts like Pogo’s critique of my focus on Republicans in this post, there are six personal attacks, off-topic rants, and unsupported insinuations.
Anonymous (or pseudonymous) comments are generally far worse, but certainly don’t have an exclusive hold on the kind of comments that derail thoughtful discussion of issues.
The New Yorker cites research that anonymous commenting tends to generate this kind of hostility, citing the work of John Suler, who researched what he called the “online disinhibition effect.” It makes sense—it’s simply a lot easier to attack people from behind the cover of anonymity or a pseudonym, because there is nothing risked. Without any jeopardy to your reputation, it’s a lot easier to engage in hostile, harassing, bullying, or just plain rude behavior.
While the article raises a number of interesting claims about the nature of online commenting, one point that particularly resonated with me was the idea that the most important issue was less the anonymity of commenters than the overall weight the tone of comments at a site can influence discussion and readers:
What the University of Wisconsin-Madison study may ultimately show isn’t the negative power of a comment in itself but, rather, the cumulative effect of a lot of positivity or negativity in one place, a conclusion that is far less revolutionary. One of the most important controls of our behavior is the established norms within any given community. For the most part, we act consistently with the space and the situation; a football game is different from a wedding, usually.
That seems like the most important issue about comments and their moderation. While I have considered moving to the Facebook platform to make comments more likely to be associated with real identities, the most important issue seems to be one of climate, not one of anonymity or individual rude behavior. If the climate of the comments section is hostile, it will encourage more hostile comments—and I am simply tired of dealing with them. I’m also tired of getting drawn into fights that are a profound waste of my time—and embarrassing to be involved in.
To that end, I’m simply going to return to applying the moderation policy I wrote some time ago. While it’s probably over-developed, the central rule is easy to follow: if you can’t debate a topic without personal attacks, you probably won’t see your comment last too long. If you choose to comment anonymously, the leash will be a bit shorter. I’d love for people who comment here to criticize my posts, each other’s comments, and the ideas raised in both. That’s how we learn from each other, after all. So fire away. Just do it like a minimally respectful person who can engage on the ideas, not the personalities involved.
Some will no doubt immediately leap to the accusation that moderating blog comments is akin to totalitarianism. I call it encouraging civility, and the difference in our views is probably the best illustration of why I plan to moderate a bit more thoroughly in the future. If that’s not to your liking, the commenting policy spells out an option to consider, too:
In the end, you may find our comment moderation inadequate or oppressive. That’s what’s wonderful about the Internet. There are literally dozens of other sites out there and we urge you to explore them.