Adventures in Ethics and Science

Matthew C. Nisbet put up a post today titled The Right Room for a Dialogue: New Policy on Anonymous Comments
. In it, he writes:

I’ve long questioned the value of anonymous blogging or commenting. Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity. And with a rare few exceptions, if you can’t participate in a dialogue about issues without using your full name and true identity, then what you have to say is probably not that valuable.

These long standing thoughts were called to mind again after reading a post by Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth. Quoting as the subject to his post a line from Monty Python “is this the right room for an argument?,” Revkin writes:

Michael Palin asked that question nearly 40 years ago on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and it’s as germane as ever in considering the merits and drawbacks to blogging, and particularly the comment strings following posts. Often, the commentary here and elsewhere threatens to devolve into extended volleys of retorts, particularly when anonymous contributors are involved, some of whom are so relentless that their ideological foes sometimes allege they must be getting paid to do what they’re doing.

Revkin goes on to link to a column by Columbus Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison who discusses the negative impact of anonymous commenters on the newspaper’s Web site. As Marrison observes of people who email the Dispatch or leave comments at stories: “Is it a coincidence that all of those civil people are reachable (and somewhat accountable) through a return e-mail?”

Matt then notes that he’ll be taking steps on his blog to end anonymous commenting.

Of course, it’s Matt’s prerogative to establish whatever sort of ground rules for commenting on his blog that he likes. However, the title of his post suggests that his aim, in moving to block anonymous commenting (and presumably pseudonymous commenting, although it’s not made explicit in the post) is to foster dialogue.

Regular readers of this blog know I have a thing for dialogue as a mode of engagement. Indeed, I’ll be at UCLA early next week taking part in a dialogue, about which more in a moment.

Regular readers of this blog also know that I welcome pseudonymous (and even anonymous) commenters, and that I used to blog under a pseudonym myself. So I’ve thought a bit about issues connected to pseudonymity and why one might want to blog with a pseudonym. And, I’d put my commenters up against those of any other blog as far as their willingness to engage in serious dialogues here about issues that matter to them a lot.

All of which is to say, I’m not on board with Matt’s premise that anonymous or pseudonymous engagement begets more incivility or undercuts the conditions for dialogue. Maybe under certain conditions it could (although not all conditions — comment threads here provide a counterexample to the universal generalization), but I’d like to see either empirical evidence or a persuasive argument to support the claim before I buy it.

But, in the interests of dialogue, I’m open to considering specific ways allowing or blocking anonymity might foster or undercut dialogue.

Once again, let me offer for your consideration the grid I encountered in the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at San Jose State University, adapted from material from the Public Conversations Project, which compares characteristics of dialogues and arguments:

In an argument, we … In a dialogue, we …
Try to win. Try to understand.
Compete for speaking time. Value listening.
Speak for others. Speak from personal experience.
Create a potentially threatening and uncomfortable environment. Create an atmosphere of safety.
Take sides with others. Discover differences even among those with whom we agree.
Polarize ourselves from those with whom we disagree. Discover shared concerns between ourselves and others.
Feel unswerving commitment to a point of view. Discover our uncertainties as well as deeply help beliefs.
Ask questions to make a point or put the other person down. Ask questions out of true curiosity and the desire to know more.
Make predictable statements. Discover significant new things.
Make simplistic statements. Explore the complexity of the issues being discussed.
Compete. Collaborate.

And, I’m going to ask you, my valued readers and commenters, to tell me which of these characteristics, aims, or activities you think are influenced by the use of real names, screen names, or anonymity in online interactions. Have at it in the comments (which, as always, will await my approval, but with luck not for an intolerably long time interval).

In the meantime, about that dialogue I’ll be a part of next week …

It’s a face to face panel discussion about the science and animal-based research, with a moderator (David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times) and an audience of members of the UCLA community who will be able to ask questions (in writing, then sifted through and put to the panelists by the moderator). All of the panelists are using their full names and true identities. But it’s not at all clear that this will guarantee either civility or successful dialogue.

In fact, there are some who seem to be using the fact that our full names and true identities are public to try to scuttle the dialogue before it has happened or scare us off from taking part in it. My address, phone and fax number, and photo have been posted on a website (whose owner uses her full name and true identity) that describes me as a “mutilation activist” and describes two of the other panelists as “SICK BASTARDS who make their livings mutilating and killing innocent animals and then promoting themselves and their atrocities”. (One of those panelists has also been dealing with demonstrations at his home.)

Personally, I’m not feeling like this does much to “create an atmosphere of safety”. Rather, it’s making the environment around the event “potentially threatening and uncomfortable”.

It’s worth noting that Dr. Ray Greek, one of the panelists on “the other side” of the dialogue has responded strongly to efforts to derail the dialogue, which gives me hope for dialogue once we’re safely inside the room.

My point in raising this is to suggest that use of real names may expose people in ways that dissuade them from being part of public conversation, and that some people using real names are more interested in shutting down dialogue than participating in it. There may be different factors involved in setting up and maintaining an online space for dialogue, but any kind of dialogue takes work.

I hope Matt is successful at setting up conditions at his blog that support the kinds of dialogue he’s hoping to have there. But I’m dubious that a shift to real names only will be sufficient for that.

Comments

  1. #1 bioephemera
    February 12, 2010

    Nice post, Janet.

    The connection Matt proposes between eliminating anonymous comments and fostering constructive dialogue is appealingly simple, but unfortunately, things just aren’t that simple. Your story is a great example of why anonymous speech is protected in the first place: no one should fear for their safety simply for exercising their right to free speech. Of course, in my experience many of the people trying to intimidate others into silence are also hiding behind the cloak of anonymity while they make their threats. It’s a complex problem worthy of careful and accurate discussion.

  2. #2 Evan Harper
    February 13, 2010

    I made a conscious decision some months ago to stop commenting on websites except under my real full name. The result is that I have been a lot more cautious about shooting my mouth off, and in times when I arguably have said something stupid, I carry that baggage around with me and feel extra-cautious about commenting in the future. Only one data point, but still.

  3. #3 Peggy
    February 13, 2010

    If I wanted to say something inflammatory, I could post as John Jones with a different email address than I usually use.

    My own feeling is that someone with an established pseudonym is more a known quantity than someone posting with a non-established “real” name, since there is simply no easy way to identify who is really posting a comment. Unless “real” names are actually validated in some way, I don’t think requiring them does much other than discouraging some people from making any comments at all.

  4. #4 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 13, 2010

    Sorry if I sound pedantic – I worked many years as a system architect in computer secutiry – but this argument will not go anywhere, unless its basic terminology is clear. More specifically, there are two concepts that are getting mixed up all the time: anonymity and pseudonymity.

    Pseudonyms are stable, used by the same person(s) all the time. They have Internet credibility, even if the real name is not publicly known. Therefore even pseudonymous writers tend to behave civilly. “Anonymous” bloggers are in fact pseudonymous.

    Anonyms are unstable. They can be created and disposed at a whim. Next time they might be used by some other persons. Anonymous commenters don’t have to worry about credibility. They can shoot from the hip, and be fraudulent.

    The real problem is anonymity, not pseudonymity. Without anonymity there wouldn’t be astroturfing or sock puppetry either.

    Even Nisbet is unclear about the difference. Concluding from his text, he only wants to block anonymous, not pseudonymous comments. He accepts a Facebook identity, which from the technical point of view is a pseudonym, because he has no way of confirming that the name belongs to the person who created the account.

    Whistleblowing does not require anonymity, only pseudonymity.

  5. #5 Chris Rowan
    February 13, 2010

    Matt is making a false equivalency here. In the full spectrum of blog commenting behaviour, you have two end members. On the one hand, you have those who are not commenting because they want to have a conversation, or because they want to learn something: they want to preach, lecture, and poison the well. In such cases, whether they are posting under their ‘real name’ or not is immaterial. Either way, I don’t know who they are. They are not part of the community, and have no real wish to be.

    On the other, you have those people who regularly read your blog, and will comment, engaging with the material and other commentators. They are there to have a conversation or to learn, and because they are willing to engage, they become part of the community, and you get to know them through their behaviour. Again, their handle is not important: ‘Joe Bloggs’ may be a pseudonym, it may not: but who cares so long as they have a distinct persona and behave consistently (and translating any of the mythical ‘many references’ regarding anonymous behaviour onto online communities will need to bear this in mind)?

    Matt’s problem is that he, as the blog owner, does not see the need/point of engaging with his commentators except in the most trivial of ways (mainly to tell them that they’re doing it wrong), so he attracts far more of the first sort than the second. He writes provocative posts and expects people to just nod at his wisdom, demonstrating that his communication expertise does not really extend to blogs. And there goes my irony meter again.

  6. #6 The Ridger
    February 13, 2010

    Considering how easy it is to set up a yahoo or hotmail account where’s the guarantee that there will be no “anonymous” comments at his place? There will no longer be people calling themselves “anon”, but that’s all. This won’t accomplish anything even if – and it’s a big if – he’s right about the link between anonymity and argument.

  7. #7 John McKay
    February 14, 2010

    I always comment using my real name, but my name is so common I’m essentially anonymous. Even if you know a John McKay or know of one, I’m probably the other one. Bora will never know this feeling.

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    February 14, 2010

    All of the members of the United States Senate speak and publish under their own names. I leave it to others to judge how well this has fostered constructive dialog.

  9. #9 adagger
    February 14, 2010

    All of the members of the United States Senate speak and publish under their own names. I leave it to others to judge how well this has fostered constructive dialog.

    *dies laughing*

    with a rare few exceptions, if you can’t participate in a dialogue about issues without using your full name and true identity, then what you have to say is probably not that valuable.

    I’m uncomfortable with the idea that those of us who prefer to keep our real names out of the discussion have little to contribute. In addition to glossing over the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity, which has already been covered quite well, it strikes me as just another form of the argument that if one has nothing to hide, one should have no problem with one’s information being spread all over the internet. Well, anyone with a reasonably uncommon name has little choice in the matter; if you know my real name you can find out in about two seconds who I work for, where I went to college, what dorm room I lived in (yes, you could find this out while I was living there), what activity clubs I belonged to… if I’m going to add to that online presence, I want to do it with information about my professional activities, not the opinions I muse about on a blog.

    I don’t think it’s out of line to want to participate in certain discussions without potentially airing the conversation to everyone I know offline, which is by no means a newfangled internet-sekrecy thing; it’s one thing to talk politics with your friends and another to vehemently disagree with your boss. I also don’t necessarily want some random blog reader having enough information to show up at my door the next day. It probably wouldn’t be an issue for me personally, but I neither do research with animals, nor have a stalker, nor need to worry about getting fired if my boss finds out I’m an atheist — there are plenty of reasons why someone might be concerned about commenting under their legal name.

    On another note, I know this has been brought up already, but I’m a bit curious as to why Nisbet is seemingly deliberately conflating anonymity with pseudonymity. Does he not read any pseudonymous blogs? Or even Slashdot, for that matter? I’m surprised that a professor of communication would fail to recognize the distinction between Anonymous Coward and User XYZ who has years’ worth of posts establishing a distinct persona.

  10. #10 Pat Cahalan
    February 14, 2010

    > All of which is to say, I’m not on board
    > with Matt’s premise that anonymous or pseudonymous
    > engagement begets more incivility or undercuts
    > the conditions for dialogue.

    I’m not either. First of all, you can’t really establish identity on the Internet, so the question is moot; people who wish to present an alternate identity will do so regardless.

    Incivility seems to be most apparent when one party isn’t interested in either dialogue or argument, but in having a platform, and that seems (from experience) to be decoupled entirely from a desire for anonymity. In fact, the *least* civil members of the Internet community (aside from toilet humor forum trolls) usually publish their own names.

    There is a point in that serious dialogue requires a baseline trust between the parties. Some people will be less trusting of anonymous posters because they feel like the poster has something to hide. This *can* lead to comment threads devolving, because even well meaning people will respond differently to people that they don’t trust.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    February 15, 2010

    Stupid, pointless rules about pseudonymity/anonymity are most likely to be circumvented by stupid, pointless commenters.

    There are ways to enforce “civility” on blogs but I seriously doubt Nisbet’s strategy will be effective.

  12. #12 anonymous #12
    February 15, 2010

    (I normally comment on SciBlogs with my real name, but 1. I’m not sure I want this opinion to be associated with it, 2. it would seem hypocritical.)

    Am I the only one who thinks anonymity – not psuedonymity, true anonymity – is an excellent way to foster productive discussion? People have brought up benefits of using names, including the building of a reputation and an unwillingness to make comments outside the accepted range of discourse.

    However, look at some of the items on the list above of characteristics of an argument: “Polarize ourselves from those with whom we disagree. Feel unswerving commitment to a point of view.” If you have no idea who the other commentors are, you can’t polarize yourself from them. If you have no reputation on the line, there’s no reason to defend your point of view to the point of shutting out other ideas. You won’t be embarassed to change your mind.

    Similarly, while most comments outside the accepted range of discourse may be unproductive – depending on what the accepted range of discourse is, anyway – some of them are useful perspectives that have the potential to move the “Overton window”. Even if they’re not productive ideas in themselves, they can shed fresh light on ideas that are.

    This ties in to the concept of psuedonymity as a shield for commentors wishing to avoid real-life repurcussions (ranging from the annyoance of their boss to a mob showing up at their door). If things can be said with no consequence, a lot of stupid things will get said, it’s true. However, I hope we can all agree that there are circumstances when the potential consequences of speech are grossly disproportionate or inappropriate. Anonymity gives people the freedom to explore ideas and express opinions that might be outside their own expected viewpoint.

    Finally, and in my mind most convincingly, anonymity not only means that people don’t stake their reputation on their comments – it means their comments don’t have the weight of reputation. In an anonymous discussion, ideas have to stand or fall on the weight of their own logic and sense. A bad idea won’t get respect because it comes from someone with a lot of good ideas, and a good idea won’t be dismissed because it comes from someone who’s normally clueless. Of course there are implications here for filtering capability and signal-to-noise ratio; however, I don’t think these concerns are any more insurmountable than they are in a discussion with too many participants to remember every one, such as most blog comment sections.

  13. #13 Pat Cahalan
    February 15, 2010

    @ anonymous #12

    While I generally agree with most of what you’re saying, one point…

    > In an anonymous discussion, ideas have to stand or
    > fall on the weight of their own logic and sense.

    … often discussions of complex phenomena require a substantial amount of evidence, which must be parsed. This is not always practical. Ideas often can’t stand on their own, they need to be justified with evidence. Additionally, often the ability to parse the evidence is contingent upon a great deal of expertise in a particular problem domain.

    The identity of the person making the claim is a type of evidence. Not always reliable, certainly not complete, but it is, in and of itself, evidence.

    I trust John Preskill to know something about physics. If he popped into a comment thread on a blog I was reading and said, “Comment #32 is very likely incorrect, see Dr. Somethingorother’s publication in the last issue of Foo”, I would take that as a substantial bit of evidence, even if I looked up the publication in question and couldn’t understand it entirely :)

    Now, of course, anyone can blog or comment as “John Preskill” without being John Preskill, so taking anything that’s said in a comment thread as gospel isn’t necessarily the best idea, but there is value to knowing who is saying what.

    It’s not an Appeal to Authority fallacy if the person who is being cited as an authority actually *is* an authority, after all.

  14. #14 Siamang
    February 16, 2010

    I’ve been using the moniker Siamang for years now. I’m far better known online as Siamang than as my real name.

    From what I’ve read of Matt, his posts generally don’t get many commenters anyway. Many a time I’ve thought about commenting on his provocative blog posts, and I’ve seen zero comments on it. Then I remember it’s Nisbet and I have no desire for him to read my comments. Since nobody else is commenting, I figure everyone’s leaving him alone and reading the blogs that matter.

    This should further that trend.

    I’ll note that PZ Myers get’s frigging death-threats for cryingoutloud, and he doesn’t hide in the corner cowering at mere “incivility”.

    Jeez. It’s not like this place is youtube or even JREF Most of the commenters here at science blogs are pretty dang tame.

  15. #15 Anonymous 41
    February 18, 2010

    1) Re: Arguments/Dialog. Arguments can be civil but unproductive (My honored colleague, the junior senator from such-and-such is making a proposal that will destroy America and kick puppies), while dialogs can show incivility, but still be good (e.g. swearing need not be bad).

    2) The big problem is not anonymous/pseudonymous commenters, it’s “drive-bys”—people who drop off a stupid/inflammatory/useless comment and leave. Linking it to a Facebook account or something won’t stop that.

    3) Just because a commenter thinks you’re stupid doesn’t mean they’re being a troll, or they’re in bad faith. It might be simple disagreement. It might be that you’re stupid.

    4) I don’t like smearing my real name all over comments, not because I’m contributing in bad faith, but because I don’t want my name attached to casual communication that is publicly recorded for perpetuity. Just because I try to be reasonable doesn’t mean I won’t sometimes be dumb (sometimes I even apologize).

    5) The comment system on science blogs doesn’t even require real email addresses, for what it’s worth.

  16. #16 Hap
    February 22, 2010

    I am cynical (and maybe wrong), but the consilience between my local paper and Dr. Nisbet’s blog would seem not to be a good sign. I think that my local paper has the interests of its owners at heart, and wants everyone else to have those interests, as well. I believe the opposition to anonymity (and maybe pseudonymity) is not to improve discussion but to provide an ability to tie comments to real people directly, and if necessary, to apply social pressure accordingly. As such, I don’t believe it’s an attempt to facilitate honest conversation, but to intimidate those who might disagree with one’s opinions.

    In the absence of an intellectual community in which to argue, the use of nonanonymity might be necessary, but the necessity for real names in that case implies an absence of most of the things someone would be willing to risk their real name to comment on.

    Real conversations don’t require fear to get people to behave – they simply require that one have useful things to say and be willing to listen to others (and perhaps, to care about what they have to say). If one is only interested in presenting one’s opinion and then ignoring what others might have to say, there’s no conversation going on, and whatever version of commenting is chosen isn’t going to eliminate the lack of conversation.