To the anonymous commenters of Howard County

Coming from the world of open source and Internet security to dabble in the waters of Howard County affairs, I was surprised by the predominance of anonymous comments on local HoCo blogs. I can only conclude that some local bloggers aren’t aware of why allowing anonymous comments is bad, that some commenters don’t know the value of using a consistent identity (fake or real), or that some commenters are willfully disrespectful of online social norms around using a consistent identifier (fake or real). This post is a primer for the first two groups, and a warning to the third.

First, some basics: There are three ways you can post something online:

  • under your real name
  • under a fake name unique to you and used consistently (pseudonym or nym)
  • under no name at all (anonymously)

Note that in many online contexts there is no real difference between the first two cases, since it’s often impractical or unnecessary to verify that a real-world identity actually exists and is associated with a specific person posting online. So in practice we can just assume that everyone commenting is using a pseudonym, with the only requirement being that they always use the same pseudonym when commenting in a particular context.

The problem with anonymous commenters is not that such people are unwilling to have comments associated with their real-life identity. Rather the problem is that they are unwilling to have comments they make today be associated with comments they’ve made in the past or might make in the future. If people use stable pseudonyms then you can track their comments over time and evaluate whether someone is making a consistent argument or displaying an overall grasp of a particular subject area.

However with anonymous commenting a person can come into a forum and post anything they wish (no matter how outrageous or ill-informed), go away, and then come back tomorrow and do the exact same thing, with no effect on their online reputation. Naturally enough, doing this is most attractive to people who want to make negative or ill-informed comments without fear of being called on it, and so a forum dominated by anonymous commenters runs the risk of degrading into a morass of personal attacks and pointless rants.

My suggestion is this: If you don’t want to use your real name then you should just make up a fake name and use that. (Just make sure it’s distinctive enough that no one else is likely to use it.) You can also put in a fake email address when it’s requested by comment forms; the blog software I use doesn’t check the address, so it doesn’t even need to be a working address. (But again, if you use a fake address please make it the same fake address each time.) That way I can track your comments over time (whether for a single post or across multiple posts), politely address you by your (possibly fake) name, and give you props where appropriate.

If you’re not willing to adopt a persistent distinctive pseudonym, and insist on putting in “anonymous” (or some variant thereof) when submitting a comment, then quite frankly I have no desire to have your comments in my comments section, and I’ll feel no compunction about deleting your comments when I notice them after the fact. (I don’t hold up comments for moderation, to make it easier for people to add comments.) Note that if I do delete an anonymous comment I’ll announce that, so you’ll know it occurred and can re-submit the comment under a proper pseudonym.

Thanks for your cooperation in this matter, and happy commenting.

7 thoughts on “To the anonymous commenters of Howard County

  1. Pingback: How I met one of the most interesting of men « Jessie X

  2. Dave W

    Amen Frank. I’ve been commenting on this for years about the local blogs allowing “Anonymous” comments that make following a debate frustrating.

    I actually finally got around to implementing a system where anyone who comments HAS TO use the same pseudonym and email address or their comment will not be approved. With some days getting upwards of 1,000 comments and single posts getting 300-400, it was the only way to ensure a dialogue of any meaning to occur on my site. The way I have done this in my blog software is when someone comments for the first time, I have to approve their comment before it will appear. Once I approve that first comment, then that name/email combo becomes “approved” and they can make comments after that as long as they continue to use the same name/email combo. If the software doesn’t recognize the combo becasue someone tried to use a different handle or email, the comment will not appear until “approve” it. Some people sneak through on occasion and manage to use a second identity, but for the most part I find them pretty quickly and essentially have eliminated the “anonymous” comments or people using multiple handles on my site.

    One side benefit is that is has also effectively eliminated my spam coments and what are commonly known as trolls who come through with what I call “hit-and-run” comments.

  3. JessieX

    “Hit and run” comments. Love it, Dave. I call them sniper attacks, but it’s essentially the same thing. Such commenters seem more interested in the attack on the person and less interested in a conversation.

    I met Frank on my blog and have come to know him precisely because he owned his identity when he commented on Hometown Columbia. I just wrote a blog post about meeting him last night: http://hometowncolumbia.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/how-i-met-one-of-the-most-interesting-of-men/

  4. JessieX

    oooh. bad sentence in my last comment. i wrote, “I just wrote a blog post about meeting him last night” but should have written, “last night, I wrote a blog post about how I met Frank” … or something like that. 😉

  5. hecker Post author

    Dave W: Thanks for the explanation of how you handle would-be anonymous commenters. I host my blog at wordpress.com (because I’m cheap and don’t have time to administer WordPress myself) and I don’t know if wordpress.com has facilities in place for me to match what you’re doing. If not, I’m not sure it matters anyway; for a popular site like yours you pretty much have to automate this, but for the level of comments I get I can probably handle it by hand.

  6. Pingback: To the pseudonymous commenters of Howard County « Frank Hecker

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