Anonymity, we want to know thy name

Julie ZhuoThe debate over anonymous commenters on the Internet got amped Nov. 29 when Julie Zhuo, product design manager at Facebook, threw her hat into the ring with an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times challenging content providers to discourage or ban anonymous posters.

She wrote:

But the law by itself cannot do enough to disarm the Internet’s trolls. Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity. Reuters, for example, announced that it would start to block anonymous comments and require users to register with their names and e-mail addresses in an effort to curb “uncivil behavior.”

That has sparked a new round of public discussion about anonymous commenters and comment management. I added links to several posts reacting to Zhuo’s piece to my ever-growing Delicious tag “comments.” The latest 25 I’ve tagged are below, but you can explore more on the debate about online comments, particularly on the sites of news organizations, by browsing through the whole list.

Her voice is one of an increasing number of people asking for more civility on Internet and who see the value of limiting anonymous speech as one of the ways of getting that. News organizations, whose editors and reporters in general have never been fond of the terrain beyond the last word of the article, are embracing the cause by exploring and experimenting with solutions.

@mathewi @chrismessina Those are my sentiments exactly, Chris–there’s value in anonymity, but we right now we lean too far towards itWed Dec 01 06:09:14 via web

At my employer, E.W. Scripps, there is a corporate-wide committee studying what others are doing and what solutions look promising to improve the quality of discourse on our sites without stifling debate. We’ve looked at vendor solutions, technology solutions and experiments like those Rob Curley is trying at the Las Vegas Sun to have verified real name commenters as well as a less prominent or permanent place for anonymous comments.

At the News Sentinel, we have spent over a year trying to better moderate and manage comments on knoxnews and govolsxtra by involving more people in the newsroom in comment management (reviewing comments is not relegated to just a couple people) and by making some technology changes. While I’m sure some will disagree, I think the quality of the conversation has improved since we had an APME Online Credibility Roundtable on online comments.

But we still have trolls and hateful comments and flame wars.

As the quality has improved, we’ve also seen less conversation. The number of comments on our sites were down 17 percent last month from a year ago while the number of unique visits were up by over 20 percent. That means more people using our sites equals less conversation. Multiple factors, I’m sure, are at work in that equation, but I suspect the stronger approaches we’re taking have had a dampening effect on comments. Is that the desired result?

Based on level of activity we’ve seen, evaluating website comments with an eye toward improving them has a high profile at many other media organizations. I hope you find this list of links helpful in thinking about anonymity, civility of conversation and healthy discourse online. If you have suggestions for links to pieces I don’t have, please suggest them. And if you have a success story with online comments or online community management, by all means, share it.

More recent links added:


  1. At this stage of your policy change, I would look at few comments as a sign of success. Of course comments are down. You’ve weeded out some of the trolls and all of the people scared off by the trolls over the years have not yet returned because they still don’t know that the water is now safe.

  2. Maybe, we still have trolls and often the comments that people object to are just expressing opinions they don’t agree with (no matter how civil the argument). I think we’ve improved comments, but we’re still a long way from having comment management solved.
    Among the tough issues with dealing with comments is coming to the realization that 1) It’ s part of the newsroom’s job and 2) comment management requires a lot of work.
    A lot of the “solutions” editors are searching for attempt to skip one or the other or both.
    It’s also worth noting, you were advocating for real names in comments while Julie Zhuo was still in high school (maybe junior high)!

  3. I think it is important to raise the quality as high as possible. Most people that visit a web site will not comment but they will see what other people wrote. So if the garbage is gone, people have a better experience of a site and are therefore more likely to come back.

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