Ron Rosenbaum

A Comment on Comments About Comments

My last post on my evolving philosophy of comments in which I called for real names from commenters, at least for this blog, provoked some interesting responses which I’d like to discuss in more detail because it’s an issue that goes beyond this particular blog.

Some might think the issue of comment policy is too insider-y. In fact the comment side of blogging has been a source of recurrent controversies in the past 6 months, throughout the blogosphere. Controversies that have spilled over into the “real world” of politics in several cases. There were the series of “sock-puppet” exposes and the discussion of how serious an ethical violation this was. There have been major Federal court decisions about libel issues–the responsibility of bloggers for libelous comments posted on their blog by commenters. Then there are the criss cross attacks between left and right blogs that try to pin responsiblity for extreme or bigoted commenters on the blog host. Uncivil fights about which side displays the most “lack of civility”?

There have been “scrubbing” of comments, “cherry picking” of comments, re ordering of comments, comment-generated scandals such as the recent Huffing-ton Post Death-to-Cheney comment explosion and the subsequent retrospective scrubbing and re ordering of those comments.

So it’s not just a inbred blogosphere navel gazing matter. My feeling, based on only limited experience blogging, but all too many hours reading blogs and blog commenters is that while many comment threads that contain anonymous posts are valuable, they’re not necessarily valuable because of the anonymity afforded.

I’d suggest it is better to err on the side of transparency which has long been a core web value. That the main reason comments tend to spiral into ugliness, and witless insult-generating contests is anonymity.

Anonymity allows one, metaphorically, to throw rocks from behind a tree and then go hide in the bushes to escape responsibility. Anonymity encourages “cyber-disinhibition”, in which people say things behind a scrim of anonymity they would not say F2F in a discussion where all parties were present. It encourages the anonymous to sound off boldly from a hidey-hole of anonymity. To spend their time and others’ (the ones who have to scroll through them) devising what they believe to be witty sallies which often turn out to childish playground name-calling–or the equivalent of obscene telephone calls– rather than devising thoughtful arguments.

The first of the two main arguments in favor of anonymity posted in the comments on my initial comments post is that people can get in trouble with their jobs for posting comments. Well, free speech often involves sacrifice of some kind and I wonder if this feared trouble is just an excuse. Maybe the solution is not to hide but to stand and fight, fight for legislation for instance that would prohibit corporations from punishing people for exercising their free speech. There are probably some legitimate exceptions where job-related anonymity is justified and I’d be willing to take them into account.

But a lot of the “my company makes me scared so I have to hide” argument isn’t entirely convincing. If you have a strong belief you should fight for the right to express it. We all should support you in that fight.

But if it’s a question of your just having a need to insult or abuse or display your otherwise unpublishable efforts at humor (I’m not speaking of any of the commenters here) and don’t want to take responsibility, that’s another thing.

The other argument expressed in comments on my Comments post is that there’s no way of verifying whether “real names” are real. . I agree that does pose a problem, aside from raising a question about why someone should be go to such lengths just to post some witless insult. Sad. At a minimum it would suggest that making the e mail from which posts are sent transparent to the reader so that, even if the pseudonymous coward can hide his identity he will at least be vulnerable to receiving directly the derision his views may evoke.

I still don’t have a good answer to these questions–it’s complicated isn’t it? I’d welcome further discussion, I think it’s an important issue for the internet as a whole, not just this blog. And it doesn’t even get into the question of bloggers’–as opposed to commenters’–anonymity.

I think it’s valuable if the entire blogosphere took some time to reflect on these questions and sought to arrive at some rough consensus on what is and isn’t a serious scandal (sock puppetry?), and what is or isn’t unethical or sleazy (scrubbing and deleting posts and comments that later become an embarrassment?).

In the mean time, real names please, I will tend to err on the side of trusting the honesty of those who provide their names. Until I have reason not to. And if you’re using a pseudonym make your email address transparent.

I think transparency is a goal to be sought if not always attainable. I’ll try to give consideration to legitimate exceptions when they don’t involve gratuitous insults, obscenity, bigotry and egregious stupidity. And I’ll make exceptions for anonymous and pseudonymous comments when they’re exceptionally intelligent or make exceptionally thought-provoking points. I don’t want to drive away those people.

Thank you for thinking about this along with me.