By Ryan McGreal
Published February 15, 2011
With all the recent discussion over anonymous commenting going on, I was starting to feel left out. Hey, I like meta as much as anyone else! Warning: what follows is a personal, self-indulgent reflection on recent events and the insights they have presented to me. YMMV.
Raise the Hammer has always allowed anonymous commenting. In the early days of the site when our readership was much smaller, we decided that obscurity was a far bigger bigger threat to discussion than abuse (to borrow an expression from Tim O'Reilly).
Anonymous commenting lowered the barrier to participation and increased the share of RTH readers who joined the discussion. At the same time, we have tried to encourage repeat visitors to register accounts by sweetening the deal with added functionality.
On balance, online and anonymous commentary has definitely been a net contribution to the sum of accessible, public knowledge on an issue, particularly when the commentary system is designed to be more or less self-regulating by its participants.
In terms of the comments themselves, our approach has been to evaluate each comment on its merits, on the perhaps-idealistic notion that troll is more a verb than a noun, a choice of action that can change.
The RTH community moderation system reflects this: each comment is voted appropriate or offensive on a case-by-case basis. It's not perfect, but it generally does a good job of correctly identifying trolls (the trolls hotly contest this, of course).
If you look at the lowest voted comments, it's clear that this space is exclusively reserved for obnoxious, repugnant dispatches. They're insults, personal attacks, inane twaddle, shameless apologetics - all trolls by any reasonable definition.
On the other hand, while users who post frequent trolls tend to acquire reputations that can take time to shake off, I've also seen clear evidence of contrarians who have chosen to frame their arguments in more respectful language in response to comment voting, and whose subsequent comments have earned respect even from people who disagree with them.
Nevertheless, as the site has grown more popular, the incidence of trolling - by which I mean posting comments that undermine and disrupt respectful dialogue by being offensive, disingenuous or needlessly provocative - has tended to increase over time, despite our ongoing efforts to mitigate and discourage it.
Last month, I decided to revisit the issue of anonymous commenting to see if it still makes sense. I analyzed the 1,000 most recent comments and determined that, by a number of measures, the average comment quality (according to votes) was significantly higher for comments from registered commenters than comments from anonymous visitors.
I put the question to the RTH community: Should RTH disallow anonymous commenting and require all commenters to register before posting comments?
The discussion that followed was insightful and led to a few changes to the site, including changing the labels on the comment votes to "Good Comment" and "Offensive Comment", the introduction of comment nesting, and a new policy to delete what I'm calling "insult spam", comments posted anonymously that contain nothing but insults and have no other content or redeeming qualities.
However, there was no consensus on disallowing anonymous commenting. Several commenters pointed out that:
As a result, RTH still allows anonymous commenting, and uses community moderation to evaluate each comment on its merits.
Personally, I use my full name when I register user accounts on other sites. The reason I do this is simply that I behave better when I'm accountable for what I do. Being accountable allows me to get a bit closer to being the kind of person I'd like to think I am.
Also, my role with RTH means I have something of a public profile. I think it's only responsible that I should take responsibility for my comments on public matters. To do otherwise would create an appearance of a conflict of interest (even though I don't have an interest, i.e. a financial stake, in the issues about which I tend to comment).
At the same time, I don't have a problem with people posting comments anonymously or, as the case more often turns out to be, pseudonymously. As one regular RTH commenter adroitly put it, "Welcome to the internet."
One thing has become abundantly clear to me after a decade of participating in online forums and six years of administering a forum: as Dorothy L. Sayers observed in an essay on writing, "The truth about the writer's personality will out, in spite of itself".
I "know" several people on RTH through their pseudonyms, the registered usernames under which they post comments. I have come to understand the people behind the pseudonyms through their writing.
On those occasions when I have actually met and developed relationships with some RTH users in the offline, i.e. "real" world, I have consistently found that their online personae pretty closely reflect their offline personalities.
Similarly, on the one occasion I was moved to ban a registered user from the site, it was quickly evident a couple of months later when the same person crept back and started posting comments anonymously. The truth about the writer's personality will out.
This whole kerfuffle started when the Spectator ran an article that quoted anonymous comments on a previous article. Unfortunately, you can no longer read the original article, as it was overwritten by the follow-up. However, the original comments are still attached to the rewritten article.
Not everyone agreed with the Spec decision to use anonymous comments in an article. Hamilton News editor Mark Cripps wrote: "I believe the use of online comments as part of a news story constitutes a shift in the traditional rules of accountability and journalistic integrity."
Coming at this from a different background than traditional mainstream journalism, I was excited to see the Spec formally acknowledge the fact that it was commenters on the original story - a story that merely reported the donation - who raised the questions about its appropriateness.
This struck me as a strongly positive development in the Spec's steady transition from a traditional print media organization in a typographic environment into an online multimedia organization in a hyperlinked environment.
The idea that readers can - or should - be partners in the process of journalism is disruptive to the traditional idea of journalists as professional enablers and gatekeepers of knowledge; but as Spec editor-in-chief Paul Berton pointed out, the decision to incorporate this commentary into the process "shows how inclusive and interactive the process of news-gathering, even by mainstream media, is becoming."
One realization I keep having these days is that as the internet matures, a kind of organic convergence is taking place: the traditional media gradually become more social and collaborative, while the community media gradually become more journalistic.
In the past year, and particularly throughout the Pan Am Stadium debate, I have found myself doing things that feel more like journalism than civic engagement per se: analyzing reports and documents, interviewing public figures, even breaking news on a few occasions.
I've also noticed that as readership (and criticism) of RTH has steadily increased, my writing has become somewhat more circumspect. I find myself less inclined to toss opinions around casually and more inclined to lay out the evidence and leave conclusions to the discretion of the reader.
This came to a head during the recent incident in which Mayor Bratina accused me of publishing defamatory material. My investigation of that claim seems to have pushed me across some kind of emotional threshold with respect to my role in RTH: suddenly it feels like Serious Business.
Partly in response to this incident, RTH contributor Mark Richardson recently prepared a guide to citizen journalism that does a great job of introducing aspiring contributors to the opportunities and challenges of writing in a medium with a much lower barrier to entry than traditional print publications.
I expect this will continue as the new media mature: adopting, relearning, and in some cases updating the principles that have informed professional journalism since the early 20th century.
At the same time, I believe the new media have also established new mechanisms of transparency and accountability - including the real-time peer review of a community of engaged readers - that give back as much as they take from traditional professional standards.
The willingness of traditional media like the Spec to incorporate community engagement parallels the willingness of new media to incorporate professional standards of evidence. Together, we'll figure this thing out.