Framing Science

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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?”

There are technological ways to enforce commenting using full names and true identities, such as logging into the comment section of a blog via a Facebook account. I don’t currently have that technological function available via ScienceBlogs. So I have added in the side bar to the editorial policy on commenting. I strongly encourage all readers to share their thoughts, but when you do, please include your full name and true identity.

Over the next year, I have plans to invest in various content features at Framing Science, and one of the improvements I am looking forward to is an end to anonymous commenting.

UPDATE: In reply to several comments to this post, my expectation about the correlation between anonymous comments and incivility is based on theories and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication. What this research suggests is that anonymity online creates the conditions where people are more willing and likely to be uncivil in their expressed opinions because they have less worry over possible social sanctions from others. See the research on spiral of silence, online deliberation, social conformity, and willingness to self censor.

UPDATE: This week Virginia Tech University (article) and the University of Wisconsin (Dean of students statement) struggled with controversies over how to handle anonymous comments at their respective student newspapers.

Also, over at Discover’s The Intersection, bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum were forced to delete a post because of the incivility of commenters.

UPDATE: In a program originally airing July 25, 2008, public radio’s On the Media explored the problems associated with anonymous commenting. Here are the three segments from the show with embedded audio included.

Comments on Comments
There’s been a bit of a backlash recently against the angry commenter on newspaper websites. Some are calling for newspapers to stop allowing comments sections all together. But what about democracy on the web? Bob, with the help of “This American Life”‘s Ira Glass, ruminates on the dark side of the comments section.

Hellhounds On My Trail
If all commenters are ticking time bombs waiting to go off, then rule one is: don’t light the fuse by responding directly. But as a professional writer and critic, Lee Siegel had had enough. So he used a pseudonym to respond. He explains the hard-won lessons from his trip to the trenches.

Aren’t We There Yet?
Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant says newspapers can’t be online without reader comments. The comments section at her paper hosts an invaluable discussion. Anyway, she says, it’s the paper’s job to make sure the conversation stays civilized.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    February 12, 2010

    “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.”

    This is nonsense, Matt. There are many commenters and bloggers who, whether out of personal preference or due to safety concerns, write anonymously or under pseuds. As with anyone else I may agree with them or disagree with what they write, but it would be pretty stupid for me to say that their view does not count because (for reasons that are frankly none of my business) they do not write under their own name.

    And anonymity does not = incivility. There are plenty of bloggers who use their real names that, depending on your view and the “groundrules” of conversation in different places, might be considered incivil. If your real concern is incivility then it is something that involves all bloggers, not just the ones who write under pseudonyms. Indeed, you say that “Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity” yet you provide no actual evidence to back up this claim.

    To me this looks like one big case of confirmation bias. As your quote above shows, using one’s real name is unnecessarily equated with civility and honesty. There is no reason to believe that is true at all. Attempts to restrict the writing of anonymous/pseud bloggers only stifles the conversation by immediately discounting those who do not wish to use their own name.

  2. #2 DrugMonkey
    February 12, 2010

    Just remember Laelaps, he is not in the business of understanding what is true about objective reality. He’s in the business of manufacturing statements about reality out of whole cloth and then working as hard as possible with expert “communication techniques” to get people to believe it. Whether it happens to be true or not.

  3. #3 Scicurious
    February 12, 2010

    “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.”

    Oh really? Dang, and here I thought I was contributing something valuable to the scientific blogging community. Busted my bubble, you have.

    Seriously, I think that this argument does not have a great deal of support. True anonymity may indeed be overwhelmed by trolling, but there are many pseudonymous bloggers who have built strong reputations for themselves on the internet, and these reputations come with responsiblity and an expectation that a particular pseud will behave in a certain way. This reputation is accompanied by relationships formed on the internet that often serve to make it profitable and important to keep up your pseud’s reputation, making it in a way as complete a personality as the person behind the pseud.

    And using a true identity, as Laelaps points out, is certainly not proof of good behavior or even a deterrent to bad behavior. Moreover, what if using your true identity means you cannot express your true feelings on a subject through fear of something like employment repercussions? I think there is a place for both anonymity and pseudonymity on the internet. Even though these may result in some undesirable consequences, they also allow people to air views when they may not otherwise have spoken up.

    Honestly, Matt, I’m a little disappointed in your black and white dismissal of anonymous/pseudonymous behavior on the internet. I mean, it’s your call, cause it’s your blog, but I thought you would be a little more open to the prospect of open dialogue, even with all the ups and downs and anonymity may bring to the picture.

  4. #4 Peewee Lipschutz
    February 12, 2010

    I honestly see nothing wrong with the policy. For one thing,there is no “comments” column on the sidebar, indicating either that comments aren’t frequent enough to bother with, or that the author does not care enough about dialog (vs. monologue) to post them prominently.

    Seriously, fools, it’s his blog, his rules. And communication is his field; don’t you think he understands this stuff without you ‘splainin it to him?

  5. #5 Abel Pharmboy
    February 12, 2010

    Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity.

    Reference please, Professor. Would you care to reassess this statement when reviewing the real-name bloggers at the center of the most egregious cases of blogosphere-wide “incivility” over the last three years?

    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.

    As a scholar, do you truly believe that? As a communicator, you might care to analyze why some people choose to write under pseudonyms.

    Given the high level of credibility you carry in several academic circles, I’m very disappointed that you are choosing to close off a large segment of the science communication community, including several of the most influential bloggers and commenters in scientific circles.

    It’s your blog, Professor, but this smells of elitism.

    (P.S. You know my real name and where we have met and spoken.)

  6. #6 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Hi guys,

    I’m calling attention to what a lot of other people have previously observed: incivility in comments appears to correlate with anonymity. The correlation follows from what we would expect from several decades of research on how opinion expression will vary based on factors related to social context.

    Note the emphasis on correlation. That doesn’t mean, as Laelaps interprets my post, that I am arguing that anonymity = incivility under all conditions or across all comments etc.

    Each blogger is free to set their own editorial policies. I encourage readers of Framing Science to comment and share their views, but request that they include their full name and true identity. Other bloggers or sites are free to set their own editorial policies.

    Btw, I don’t think we are too far away from many news organizations and digital news communities incorporating tools that cut down on anonymous commenting.

    –Matt

  7. #7 ambivalent academic
    February 12, 2010

    If you carry this argument to its logical end, then one must argue against the Witness Protection Program, whistle-blower statutes, and any other legal mechanism which obscures a person’s identity in order to make it safe for them to relay true but personally dangerous information.

    Many pseudonymous bloggers, myself included, use a pseudonym because it allows us to say true but unflattering things about our areas of expertise. In such a way, we can be uncensored and provide information that would not otherwise come to light, without jeopardizing our persons or careers.

    But you’re trying to say that using a pseudonym automatically invalidates information that would otherwise never be exposed, simply because the person doing the dirty work would like to remain in a position where they can continue to have access to this information and continue to provide insight to others? Is that really what you’re arguing here? Because that sounds very anti-communication to me.

  8. #8 Ed Yong
    February 12, 2010

    These new content features that you are investing in – will they include providing actual evidence to support your straw-man caricatures? If so, I await the new release with eager anticipation.

  9. #9 ambivalent academic
    February 12, 2010

    I’m calling attention to what a lot of other people have previously observed: incivility in comments appears to correlate with anonymity.

    Really? Data please.

  10. #10 David Kroll
    February 12, 2010

    Btw, I don’t think we are too far away from many news organizations and digital news communities incorporating tools that cut down on anonymous commenting.

    That is a misrepresentation. News organizations and digital news communities require registration with an authentic e-mail address but still permit comments under a pseudonym whereby the contact information is not open to the general public.

    No one is arguing with your personal blog policy. They are arguing with the content of your argument. Correlation is not causation.

  11. #11 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Abel,

    Note the focus on commenters and comments in the post and also that I am discussing the policy here at Framing Science and not advocating for an across the board change at Scienceblogs etc.

    Also, note the use of “a few rare exceptions.”

    –Matt

  12. #12 TTT
    February 12, 2010

    You know who wrote under his real name?

    Hitler.

  13. #13 DrugMonkey
    February 12, 2010

    I’m calling attention to what a lot of other people have previously observed: incivility in comments appears to correlate with anonymity.

    Really? Data please.

    ahh, but you notice the careful spin? Note, Matt, that “a lot of other people” have also previously observed that incivility in comments has nothing to do with anonymity.

    He said, She said. In our world of science and rationality, we’d proceed to look at some data to inform the claim (*cough*PZ*cough*; *cough*scicurious*cough*…). In your world of communications, you simply keep repeating your position louder and louder and hope that you “win”, regardless of the truth or falsity of your original statement.

    To echo Jon Steward addressing those Crossfire toerags, your approach is ruining America. Just stop it.

  14. #14 DrugMonkey
    February 12, 2010

    “Stewart”

  15. #15 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Dave,

    Anonymity online creates the conditions where people are more willing and likely to be uncivil in their expressed opinions because they have less worry over possible social sanctions from others. See the research on self-censorship and spiral of silence respectively.

    There are a number of different types of studies you could design to test this expectation and to show causality.

    –Matt

  16. #16 ambivalent academic
    February 12, 2010

    Anonymity online creates the conditions where people are more willing and likely to be accurate and honest in their expressed opinions because they have less worry over possible social sanctions from others.

    FTFY

  17. #17 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Drug Monkey,

    My expectation about anonymity and incivility is based on theory and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication. Take a look at the two areas of research I referenced, they are search terms that lead to easily retrievable articles. It’s an interesting question to read about, study, and do research on.

    –Matt

  18. #18 DrugMonkey
    February 12, 2010

    There are a number of different types of studies you could design to test this expectation and to show causality.

    I propose a field experiment. Let us create a technology by which many real world individuals could attempt to communicate with others via words, images and other media elements. Let us permit a range of engagement policies from unfettered anonymity to lock-down identity driven. Let it percolate for several years, and look upon the results.

    Let us easily falsify the trite absolutist statements right off the bat.

  19. #19 Bora Zivkovic
    February 12, 2010

    The “theory and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication” is bunk – it is just silly spouting by people who have never read a blog and who feel threatened by the openness and transparency that the Web brought in, including instant and painful exposure of their lies.

    Those so-called ‘researchers’ never actually explored the blogosphere, never asked experienced bloggers – they just hate the fact that they are caught every time they lie. Like you did in this post.

    A lot of people hate Dave Winer’s guts. Yet, after 12 years of blogging, his comment threads are very substantive and pleasant. Why? Because he sets the tone (in his post), he dilligently monitors his comments (and is quick on the banning button), and he engages his readers in the comments himself. How about ‘Moving Light’ or ‘Crooker Timber’ blogs – the same thing.

    What the media got wrong is they misunderstood an old court case to mean they cannot moderate or touch the comments. And of course, they are so haughty, they never actually show up in the comments themselves. As a results, all they get are the loudest screamers. People who can potentially bring in some erudition are put off by this – why engage when all you get is likely to be screaming in response. Watching their own comment threads, on their own online newspaper articles, they drew the conclusion that people who post online are idiots. Then they mis-named those people “bloggers” so they can attack bloggers. Then they mis-attributed the behavior to anonymity. Not to mention that they themselves are setting the tone to beging with by writing idiotic “HeSaidSheSaid” and “View From Nowhere”, pseud-objective crap that provokes anger, usually righteous anger from the audience. That’s the research you are mentioning – nothing real, nothing informed. Air.

    Another thing that your post demonstrates is that you have no idea what blogging is. You are using blogging software, but you do not use it for communication. You use it for one-to-many lecturing. You do not read other blogs. You are on a friggin’ network, sometimes accused of being incestuous, yet you have never read, obviously, many many posts that Sciblings have written on THIS VERY topic over the years. You FAIL (but what’s new?)

  20. #20 rork
    February 12, 2010

    I’d actually like to see more opportunity for anonymous comments about scientific papers. Currently, most of the better readers of crappy papers would like to say what they see as wrong, and it might quickly become apparent that most of them smell skunk, but we do not want to express ourselves since retaliation may result, including lawyers.
    Biological science paper are going to hell, and good people do almost nothing.

  21. #21 DrugMonkey
    February 12, 2010

    is based on theory and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication

    I’m sure it is. But as with any area of science we have to know something about the way the experiments were construed, how ‘civility’ is defined and all that jazz.

    As I view the natural experiment of the blogosphere, you can have environments where ‘incivility’ is both present and absent under both anonymous/pseudonymous and real-world-identity conditions. This is even before we get to definitions of what constitutes ‘civility’. Point being that your broad equation of incivility with anonymous comments is just plain wrong. A statement of fact, backed by your authority in the field instead of data and rationale (as you’ve just done here), unqualified by nuance.

    I will be absolutely delighted, however, to see you try the experiment you are proposing. It will be interesting to see if people modulate their incivility towards many of your ideas and posts because of this. Given that some of your most profound critics in the past have been real-identity bloggers…. well, let’s just say I predict your hypothesis will not be supported.

  22. #22 MarkusR
    February 12, 2010

    Funny, with the exception of online billing, and or financial transactions, I don’t register for anything “free” with my real name or address. It has more to do with security and privacy than desire to annoy the forum host. I can’t say I’ve ever been banned before from any of these forums, so I can’t say registration would do me any favors. Would likely limit my participation though.

  23. #23 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Bora,

    You make some good points about news organizations. You are also correct that I don’t follow the vast number of posts within the scienceblogs network. I just don’t have the time or motivation that many other bloggers have. The few blogs I do follow are outside of the scienceblogs network, as reflected in my sidebar.

    –Matt

  24. #24 Orac
    February 12, 2010

    Matt Nisbet opines:

    I’m calling attention to what a lot of other people have previously observed: incivility in comments appears to correlate with anonymity.

    And then:

    My expectation about anonymity and incivility is based on theory and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication. Take a look at the two areas of research I referenced, they are search terms that lead to easily retrievable articles. It’s an interesting question to read about, study, and do research on.

    Really? Perhaps you could spoon feed us poor, ignorant wretches who aren’t familiar with this psychology and communication research a few links to some examples of studies that support your contention. You do know that telling someone to “go Google it” or to “do some PubMed searches and find some papers” (which, let’s face it, is exactly what you just did) is not helpful in the least, don’t you? And I say this as someone who strongly defended you and Chris Mooney in the past. The distant past, true, but I am someone who was receptive to the whole “framing thing” and you managed to disillusion me completely with your subsequent posts over the last couple of years. If you were a commenter on my blog and told another commenter who asked you a question to “go do some searches,” my commenters would let you have it.

    And you would deserve it, because not deigning to provide a few references to back up an assertion in the face of a reasonable question or challenge in a discussion is considered quite lame in the blogosphere.

  25. #25 Tulse
    February 12, 2010

    The contrast between this initial blanket claim of:

    Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity.

    and the later backpeddling:

    My expectation about anonymity and incivility is based on theory and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication.

    is precisely why I at least have serious qualms about Matt as a scientist.

  26. #26 Orac
    February 12, 2010

    P.S. You know my real name and where we have met and spoken

    Indeed, as he knows mine. I significant fraction of my readers know my real name, too.

  27. #27 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Orac,
    To follow the different threads of literature in the area, see links in the update at the bottom of the post.

    –Matt

  28. #28 Tulse
    February 12, 2010

    Matt, since this is your general area of expertise, couldn’t you provide at least a few specific studies on this matter. Giving Google Scholar searches is only a small step above just telling people to Google it, and in the few papers I looked at in the linked searches, there was nothing specific about pseudonymity, and a few studies that suggested that online polling works as well as face-to-face polling, which seems to undercut the claim under discussion.

  29. #29 ambivalent academic
    February 12, 2010

    Upon a cursory reading re: the “spiral of silence” links you provided, I cannot argue that people may well have a tendency to self-censor when it is made clear that their views are in the minority.

    As such, don’t you think that *your* statements equating incivility with anonymity here on *your* blog, assisted by an authoritative-sounding delivery, will attract others of the same view (who will comment to that effect) and slight those who would otherwise disagree (who will then self-censor)?

    (This particular thread would not seem to uphold this hypothesis, so I presume that you and “a lot of other people” have enough experiences to the contrary to discount this particular thread as an outlier.)

    How then, do you account for the confirmation bias?

  30. #30 Bora Zivkovic
    February 12, 2010

    Attracting people of the same view assumes there are people of the same view. Also, formation of a defensive-to-dissenters echo-chamber in one’s comment threads is only possible where regular commenters respect the blogger. Since Matt has lost everyone’s respect a long time ago, people no more have any qualm about coming here and blasting him, and there’s not much of a defense army he can call upon to defend him in the comments.

  31. #31 Peter Winters
    February 12, 2010

    Matt,

    I certainly support the direction you are going in & will be interested in what policy you end up using.

    I suspect that people get turned off from blogs where the comments get abusive – and I have stopped attending in a number of (otherwise interesting) blogs for that reason.

    Peter Winters, http://haddock-research.blogspot.com/

  32. #32 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 12, 2010

    Hi Peter,

    To follow up, some interesting questions to examine would be:

    a) The number of people who read an original post
    b) The number and type of people who read the comment section
    c) and the number and type of people who choose to comment.
    d) and then how these numbers might vary by blog community,news organization, blog style or focus, and the design and management of a comment section.

    –Matt

  33. #33 Jim
    February 12, 2010

    Perhaps a policy of no use of anonymous sources by traditional journalists would be good too?

    As we know, wars get started — and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people die — based on the claims of anonymous sources (“Curveball”).

    Then again, anonymous sources (eg, whistle-blowers) also sometimes expose wrong-doing at the highest levels, so…perhaps it is not all that clear-cut.

    But even if there is a direct correlation between anonymity and lack of civility, so what?

    The primary purpose of journalism (including that practiced on blogs)– especially science journalism — should not be the maintenance of civility. It should be exposing the truth.

    The actual practice of science itself is sometimes very uncivil. (Just look at the relationship between Newton and Hooke)

    But so what?

    That’s not what is most important.

  34. #34 Isis the Scientist
    February 12, 2010

    I propose a field experiment. Let us create a technology by which many real world individuals could attempt to communicate with others via words, images and other media elements. Let us permit a range of engagement policies from unfettered anonymity to lock-down identity driven. Let it percolate for several years, and look upon the results.

    This has already been done.

  35. #35 A
    February 12, 2010

    - There are many of us who work (without tenure) for a living, and you know, even if you work for a liberal institution, you might not want your comment/ criticism immediately and unmoderatedly known to your co-workers or bosses, so as to reduce friction in the workplace. This is even more important in the U.S., where there is no meaningful employee protection and you can be fired without reason from most jobs. (Even if your employer sympathizes with your point of view, it may be your fault if you seem not to get along with, say, this religious fundamentalist in your group.) Then there are some of us who work for the government, or rely on government grants and contracts, and would not want to be seen as politically partisan. (Even if you are a professor, would you want all your students to know that….. and if you tell them [we should all reveal our biases, after all], you want to tell them on your terms, directly).
    -> So if only comments with verifiable names are allowed, expect more comments agreeing with the status quo or other prevailing prejudice, and less critical comments, and certainly very few comments possibly criticizing the [favorite grant-giving agency, the government, university governance, senior scientists in commentator's field....]

    The positive side of anonymous commenting is that you have to look at every comment you read critically, and evaluate yourself if it makes sense or not; being aware that the poster might have actually a good idea, independent of who he/she is, or is a crackpot.

    The price of anonymity in commenting is, as you observe, occasional threads which descend into name-calling etc. In that case, you may write a last comment announcing that you end this thread, for this reason; or that you will now moderate this thread.

  36. #36 Lora
    February 12, 2010

    I seem to recall a comment thread or three about a conference session on the very subject of Online Civility on blogs, and I believe in the real-life, in-person, not-at-all-anonymous, very-identifiable Q&A, some people nevertheless were quite incivil indeed, to the point of making giant asses of themselves.

    Oh yeah, here it is:
    http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/2010/01/the_panel_on_civility_and_comp.php

    What are you basing this notion on? 4chan? If you want a hypothesis about anonymous commenting, you would be better served stating that anonymous comment-permitting websites lead to an inordinate number of captioned cat pictures. At least there’s data to support that.

  37. #37 Orac
    February 12, 2010

    Matt, since this is your general area of expertise, couldn’t you provide at least a few specific studies on this matter. Giving Google Scholar searches is only a small step above just telling people to Google it, and in the few papers I looked at in the linked searches, there was nothing specific about pseudonymity, and a few studies that suggested that online polling works as well as face-to-face polling, which seems to undercut the claim under discussion.

    Exactly. And some of the references were old (1970s era), long before online discussion forums even existed, making me wonder about their applicability to the question of anonymity in Internet discussion forums, blogs, etc. Let’s put it this way, I’ve been on Usenet under one pseudonym or another since around 1993 or 1994 and under the Orac ‘nym since 1998 or so. There is a history there that matters every bit as much as if I were using my real name.

    Seriously, I’m with Tulse here. You’re the freakin’ expert. You should cite a handful of what you consider to be the seminal references that support your contention. When someone challenges me on my blog regarding, for instance, vaccines and autism, I can rattle off a list of several very large studies and seminal papers without even thinking about it to show no correlation between vaccination and autism–and neither autism nor vaccination is even my primary area of academic expertise! After all, I’m a surgeon, fer cryin’ out loud!

    Science communication is supposedly your area of academic expertise. Surely I’m not being unreasonable expecting at least as much of you as I provide my readers in an area that is not even what I do for a living.

  38. #38 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2010

    I have many annoying commenters on my blog. One or two of them are not pseudos, but most are. I have a few peudos who are not annoying, and some of my best friends are anonymous. In fact, I think one of them is using my bathroom as we speak.

    And, I totally get the annoyance wiht pseudos.

    However, I think it is a mistake to do this, for a number of reasons.

    Besides, they’ll just change their name to John Smith, 123 Main Street, Our Fair City, MA

  39. #39 Orac
    February 12, 2010

    When I said “you’re the freakin’ expert,” I was addressing Matt, not Tulse, obviously. Also obviously I need to read my comments one last time before I hit “Post.” :-)

  40. #40 Lora
    February 12, 2010

    Sorry ’bout the double post, but for a more general example of extreme incivility in a highly identifiable part of teh intartubez, would Mr Nisbet please see http://failbooking.com .

  41. #41 Recall
    February 12, 2010

    “There are technological ways to enforce commenting using full names and true identities, such as logging into the comment section of a blog via a Facebook account.”

    Facebook is obviously unfakeable.

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2010

    DrugMonkey[21]

    I will be absolutely delighted, however, to see you try the experiment you are proposing. It will be interesting to see if people modulate their incivility towards many of your ideas and posts because of this

    Just about when I got to the point in reading these comments of DM’s remark, I was thinking the same thing.

    There is no doubt whatsoever that there are a lot of anonymous bloggers and commenters who tend to be [jerks], and are such unmitigated [jerks] that I’m pretty sure they would not act like they do if their identies were public.

    There is an argument that we somehow need those assholes because they are saying important things that we otherwise would not hear. I see a very very small number of cases of that. Most are just unmitigated useless assholes that we would be better off without. But yes, there are those few and probably very important anonymous bloggers and maybe some commenters (although I can’t think of any anonymous commenters who are not bloggers who are contributing anything we don’t already have).

    And, it has to be admitted that there are a lot of people who are just using anonymity to be jerks, some perhaps thinking that they are doing something important, hoping we will all think they are doing something important, but all they are really doing is being annoying.

    Having said all that… (and being a little disappointed that very few people will acknowledge this downside)….

    This comment policy is not going to get Framing Science much, if anything.

    [*Note: Greg I have moderated some of the language in this comment, see brackets--MNisbet]

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2010

    And… that first paragraph is supposed to be in quotes. I was not plagiarizing DrugMonkey.

  44. #44 Grant
    February 12, 2010

    There are several major flaws in moving from saying that a subset of anonymous commenters cause havoc to acting against all anonymous commenters.

    1. It presumes that the majority of anonymous commenters are malicious or a nuisance.

    2. It moves from judgement based on what is important, the nature of the comment, to some personal feature of the commenter.

    3. Almost the only places I’ve seen this policy put into practice are a right-wing religious blogs, where they almost always are terribly thinly disguised attempt to censor opinions they don’t like.

    4. That all/most people posting there in their real names are civil and accessible does not infer that all/most that people that do not post in their real names are uncivil or inaccessible. (Aside from the illogic of this, quite a number of people use aliases simply because they like them or the represent an aspect of their personality or for safety reasons. I’ve done all three at various times.)

    Your policy for your blog… but the logic you offer… not sound IMO. The kindest I can offer is that you must be happy to hit the good along with bad in your wish to get rid of the bad. As a practical matter seeing as your blog doesn’t get that many comments, surely you can moderate based on content?

  45. #45 bioephemera
    February 12, 2010

    For what it’s worth, given my own experience blogging on Sb, I have a great deal of sympathy for Matt’s decision.

    I don’t think anonymity maps squarely onto incivility, but I don’t think it’s an unmitigated good, either. There’s a difference between anonymity and pseudonymity, but you also can’t tell me I don’t get a whole heck of a lot of assholish comments from people who are unidentifiable; i do, and very broadly speaking, these comments contribute relatively little to meaningful dialogue. My readers have expressed a desire to have open comments, so I respect that. But it’s a personal decision related to how much crap you want to deal with while blogging, and if a fellow blogger decides not to deal with it, I respect that.

  46. #46 DrugMonkey
    February 13, 2010

    The thing is, BioE!, the OP made a more sweeping and absolutist generalization. About which he is wrong, in a trivially demonstrable way. Plenty of blogs around Sb have entirely civil and valueladen discussions with anonymous commenters. Plenty of uncivil commentary at Nature Network- which requires real ID and a conduct code. The studies Matt cites cannot trump this current reality of the very systems he claims to predict.

  47. #47 Katherine
    February 13, 2010

    Incivility correlates more with how well moderated the space is. Obnoxious anonymous comments will not be seen if moderation is sufficient.

  48. #48 Greg Laden
    February 13, 2010

    Katherine: That might be true, but that can also be a lot of work. If every comment is moderated, the blogger really needs to be dilligent IF conversation is desired, and if every comment is not moderated, it is actually very hard to make bad people stop being bad or making them go away. (There are methods but I prefer not to use them.)

    Of course, it is also possible to have no comments at all. No comments, push only, with selected guest posts would be one way of having a very ponderous slow moving conversation…

  49. #49 Jim
    February 13, 2010

    Katherine:

    “Incivility correlates more with how well moderated the space is. Obnoxious anonymous comments will not be seen if moderation is sufficient.”

    I suspect (based on blogs i have visited and seeing the way the blog owner dealt with name-calling and the like) that you have that exactly right! (though I have seen no actual data one way or the other)

    Apart from that, I will say that Mr. Nisbet is certainly entitled to adopt any policy he wants regarding commenters. It’s his blog, after all. But it may just cut his regular number of comments in half, but perhaps he does not care. :)

  50. #50 Oran Kelley
    February 13, 2010

    Katherine: Incivility correlates more with how well moderated the space is. Obnoxious anonymous comments will not be seen if moderation is sufficient.

    Greg: That might be true, but that can also be a lot of work.

    I don’t think it is true. Moderating every comment on most blogs is just not feasible, and authorial presence has some but limited effect on the behavior of others, as we can see at Greg’s blog, where Greg is usually “present,” but things still occasionally drift away from Queensberry rules

  51. #51 Oran Kelley
    February 13, 2010

    the OP made a more sweeping and absolutist generalization.

    What? That incivility appeared to correlate with anonymity? That’s absolutist?

    His “few rare exceptions?” That is explicitly non-absolutist, though probably overstated.

    And who cares about a couple of counter-examples? You sound like a “snow in Texas=no global warming” type.

  52. #52 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 13, 2010

    Hi all,

    I am glad that my original post has sparked a vigorous discussion, even with many of the commenters remaining anonymous. ;-)

    I’ve added a second update linking to text and audio of three segments from public radio’s On the Media that explore the topic of online commenting, flaming, and anonymity.

  53. #53 Gaythia
    February 13, 2010

    Print newspapers have long had an elaborate procedure, involving dedicated staffing, to attempt to verify the identities of letter to the editor writers before publishing.

    When I first started commenting, I pondered this identity issue and split the difference with a semi-anonymous identity, so I am sympathetic with Matt’s ideas here.

    On the other hand, I believe that reasonable people value their pseudonym identities, and are quite to defend them, as Orac quickly did in correcting a very minor error above.

    Those who use anonymity to attack, will, as Greg Laden points out above @#38, figure out ways to get around a barrier.

    Attempts at moderating by the blog owner as well as fellow commenters are also not perfect, but still seem to work well much of the time.

    This is just one of the many ways that democratic ideals and open societies are messy in practice.

  54. #54 Eli Rabett
    February 13, 2010

    From Eli’s experience institution of such policies is merely a beard to get rid of a few inconvenient and biting critics who are not swallowing the Kool Aid

  55. #55 Jim
    February 13, 2010

    Moderating every comment on most blogs is just not feasible, and authorial presence has some but limited effect on the behavior of others,”

    Actually, it’s not so much a matter of “moderating every comment” as it is a matter of setting a “tone”.

    I suspect that many blogs are a bit like dealing with a junior high classroom. :) If you lay down the law at the getgo, you may get the occasional transgression, but more people will follow the rules.

    And if things get out of hand, you (as moderator) simply clamp down a bit for a while (the analog of giving out “detention”)

    Finally, with regard to why people prefer to remain anonymous, there are a myriad of reasons (some mentioned above).

    But there is one advantage of anonymous commenting that i have not seen mentioned:

    In at least one regard, the anonymous commenter may actually be less likely (than a named commenter) to be provoked into a flame war by direct personal attacks because the anonymous commenter has no vested interest in “defending their name”.

    Finally, I will just say that in my opinion some of the most valuable blogs on the internet (including several scientific ones) have pseudonymous authors (and commenters). When such an author/commenter exposes another blog post or comment as scientific rubbish, the identity and credentials of the author matter not.

    In science in particular, the identity or background of the author makes no difference to the validity of the argument they are making.

    It would be anecdotal evidence but I could cite literally hundreds of examples of cases where pseudonymous bloggers and commenters have taken others to task (with facts and logic) for what amounted to pseudoscience (to be kind).

    That should be true in other areas as well.

  56. #56 Oran Kelley
    February 13, 2010

    Actually, it’s not so much a matter of “moderating every comment” as it is a matter of setting a “tone”.

    I agree: I think for most purposes this can work fine. There’s actually an interesting study related to the disinhibiting qualities of anonymity that finds that it is easier to propagate a NOVEL ethos in an anonymous setting. I’ll look for the link . . . I’m thinking that one this blog owners can do is to spell out what behavior is expected as if you invented the code of conduct, rather than relying on “basic civility.”

    I am actually a big supporter of limited anonymity (that is, by and large you have to stick to one pseudonym rather than serially burning through identities as the occasion suits). There are several studies out there showing that the disinhibiting nature of anonymity leads not only to increased rudeness, but also to better, more creative, more productive and more challenging conversations. (Google: anonymity and disinhibition)

    The rudeness, as you suggest, can usually be managed, and anonymity on the Internet, I’d agree, is to the good.

    However, that doesn’t mean it suits Mr. Nisbet’s purposes here, or that misbehavior correlates with anonymity is false.

  57. #58 Coturnix
    February 13, 2010

    Why was a comment by a professional science communication academic researcher deleted? It wasn’t even a challenge (though could have become in the future). And it was not even anonymous – real initials and last name (while a number of pseudonymous comments are remaining).

  58. #59 viajera
    February 13, 2010

    Another issue that I’m surprised to see no one has mentioned here is gender. Female commenters and, especially, bloggers typically have very different – i.e., often far more aggressive and threatening – experiences on the internet than do men. Witness the vicious attacks, including threats of death and/or sexual violence, on Kathy Sierra, as well as upon many other bloggers (Melissa McEwan, as just one additional example). Blogging while female can be dangerous, thus anonymity is far more important for pure personal safety reasons for women than for men.

    Beyond the safety reasons, there is the simple fact that women’s comments are often not treated with the same respect and value as men’s. Witness the continued gender disparity in pay for similar work, or for an immediate (if extreme) example, that of “James Chartrand”.

    Men such as yourself have the privilege of being able to blog and comment using your real name, while maintaining a reasonable presumption of safety and garnering respect. Women all too often do not share in these privileges.

  59. #60 Coturnix
    February 13, 2010

    Your blogroll is very….MSM + academic. Your comfort zone. Not out with the proles. You really need to get out more. If you did, you would not have missed, for example, last years’ excellent discussion on pseudonymyty here.

  60. #61 Gaythia
    February 13, 2010

    I think this is an odd data point: scrolling back through the past comments, I notice that while there are many people who use pseudonyms, there are only two recent posts as “anonymous”. In one instance, Kathrine caught herself immediately and reposted :Err, that was me. The other comment is actually mine. It was also an oops. I didn’t notice that I had sent it in without my name for a couple of days, and then I figured, oh, well. The most strident thing I said was: “I do not agree that climate change advocates have “almost unequaled” communication capital, I think that the opposing forces are much more powerful and media savvy.” Which you can feel free to take issue with, but I don’t think it is too dramatic or at all uncivil.

    Since family health issues kept me from registering for the San Francisco AGU conference and your workshop on public engagement there, as I had hoped to; thus, I have never met you personally. Does my name really matter?

  61. #62 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 13, 2010

    Coturnix,
    The comment was made using a pseudonym, by a close friend, who was trying to be mischievous and to stir up trouble.

    We can debate these issues for a long time, without reaching closure. I stand by my initial observation about the likely correlation between anonymity and incivility. Past research would predict that anonymity online promotes greater overall levels of incivility, especially in debate over politics, or issues that people hold intense feelings about. Remaining anonymous protects an individual from facing social sanction or other negative impacts while eliminating many social incentives to engage in dialogue.

    Next week I am traveling, but I hope to return to this topic in coming weeks.

    –Matt

  62. #63 bioephemera
    February 13, 2010

    When you do return to the topic, Matt, please be careful to differentiate between pseudonymous and anonymous commenters. I didn’t have a problem with your original post in that regard, but in your response to comments you seem to conflate the two. As you are no doubt aware, they’re different, and the nuances of that difference are important both legally and socially. Thanks.

  63. #64 Gaythia
    February 13, 2010

    Matt, I read your blog because I am very interested in what you have to say. Particularly on the subject of science and public engagement. But as the only person, albeit inadvertently, who is a recent anonymous commenter here, I am curious as to YOUR response to knowing a commenter’s name.

    Does it make a difference if I am “anonymous” and you can’t tell who I am, “Gaythia” whom you’ve never heard of before, or someone you know personally or who is identifiably famous? In what ways?

    I’m thinking more of dialogue and public engagement here, as opposed to flameouts, which I oppose. I also read Janet Stemwedel”s blog and think that her approach to thinking about dialogues, arguments and how to hold a civil public conversation is quite worthwhile.

  64. #65 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 13, 2010

    Bioephemera and Gaythia,

    Both good points and topics I definitely will address when returning to this topic. Thank you for the insights. Next week is going to be very busy but looking for something more this month.

    –Matt

  65. #66 Lab Rat
    February 14, 2010

    viajera makes a good point. Of all the bloggers I have come to know, the female ones tend (with a few exceptions) to be pseudononymous, while the male ones overwhelmingly seem happier using their own name.

    I would not feel safe putting my own name out every time I made a comment. And not because I’m making a rude or objectional comment, but because I’ve had it drilled into me that letting a huge number of people become aware of your personal details is Dangerous. And when you are writing a comment on a blog EVERYONE can potentially see it, and find out your name, and google it to get your address (and yes, my name does lead straight to my address if googled – it’s a rare name and my university has online records).

    I can understand you not wanting to deal with the uncivil anonymous comments. But all a blanket ban on anyone without their true name is going to do is get fewer people with interesting points commenting.

    As you pointed out, this has been an interesting discussion! Even with all these anonymous/pseudononymous people involved!

  66. #67 Gaythia
    February 14, 2010

    I believe that the legal and internal case that Butler University brought against then anonymous student blogger, Jess Zimmerman, is relevant to the discussion here. I think it is worthy of an addition to your “Updates” above.

    In my opinion, this is an example of a case where a anonymous blog, with anonymous comments served a vital role for people who it appears to me had grievances that they seem to have felt they could not share publicly.

    The initial issues can be seen at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/16/butler#

    Jess Zimmerman, maintains a new, public blog with links to many of the relevant details at:
    http://akadoe.blogspot.com/. He has recently settled the matter with Butler, will graduate, and has already been admitted to one of his top choice law schools, after what was, perhaps, one of the most intensive pre-law education ever.

  67. #68 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 14, 2010

    Hi Lab Rat and Gaythia,

    Thanks for these points and links to cases. This has been a terrific discussion and I am definitely going to revisit this topic in a future post, trying to break down the various relevant dimensions and summarizing some of the available research. I may even start to work on an article about this topic since I think it is relevant to both the fields of science communication and political communication and yet very little appears in the journals, apart from several decades of basic research and theorizing about social context and opinion expression.

    As for my comment policy, many of the points made in this thread have changed a bit the direction of my thinking. I still believe, based on what we know from past research generally on social context and opinion expression, that anonymity promotes overall higher levels of incivility across the comment spaces at news organizations and blogs. However, anonymity and pseudo-anonymity also have positive benefits, as many have pointed out, especially given certain conditions or on certain topics.

    In this regard, as an editorial policy, I will allow anonymous and pseudo-anonymous comments as long as they follow the basic policy of “Keep it substantive, serious minded, on topic, and respectful.”

    Thanks again everyone for the feedback and ideas.

    –Matt

  68. #69 ivan b dylko
    February 14, 2010

    there’s been a controversy recently over at engadget.com (#2 most popular blog, according to Technorati’s rating), who turned comments off completely for several days. they didn’t do it due to anonymity issues, but they did do it because of incivility that you are talking about here. check out the end of their podcast for more inside scoop on the decision: http://www.engadget.com/2010/02/07/engadagt-podcast-182-02-07-2010/

  69. #70 Eamon
    February 15, 2010

    “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.”

    That may depend on how free you were to express your opinions in the society you grew up in. I grew up in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’ – expressing contentious views openly could end you up in hospital for double knee surgery – or worse.

    I now blog using my first name, having previously used a pseudonym – but if I have to use my full name (which may not even fit in the form box!) then that would curtail how free I could be with my opinions.

    That said – your blog, your rules!

  70. #71 dave
    February 15, 2010

    i’m with Eamon..too many crazy people out there.if it was face to face and you can size a person up and ID them it would be different,or your members of the same group with unspoken but understandable rules of conduct.

  71. #72 Pareidolius
    February 16, 2010

    Well, that worked. I actually came to your blog and read a post, but really, this is like a Sunday afternoon in Liesure World compared to Pharyngula.

  72. #73 Jose Garcia
    February 16, 2010

    Laelaps: “This is nonsense, Matt. There are many commenters and bloggers who, whether out of personal preference or due to safety concerns, write anonymously or under pseuds…”

    And regardless of what Matt or even a few thousand Matts do those people will be able to continue to publish anomymous commentary and content on the internet. Trying to equate this move with dismantling the witness protection program is a bit over the top.

    However I’m not sure that this move is necessary. Matt you have a good comments section on your blog as many blogs on Scienceblogs do. My suggestion is to resist the temptation to mess with a good thing.

  73. #74 Skeptico
    February 16, 2010

    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.

    I have two points to make:

    1) That paragraph is the definition of ad hominem – attacking the person making the comment, rather than addressing what they actually wrote.

    2) Please explain how my comment at point 1) above would be more valuable or more correct if I had used my full name.

  74. #75 CaptainBlack
    February 17, 2010

    What is a real identity on the Interweb where throw away accounts are the norm?

    How can you ensure I am who I claim to be? I have half a dozen email addresses where I can be reached. Some happen to use elements of what passes for a real name, most don’t.

    If you require a facebook account to register to comment, then I will create a throw away one use it to register and then abandon it. That is the way many operate to the World-Wide-Wait, if only to lose the spammers and other sociopaths.

    CB

  75. #76 Skeptico
    February 17, 2010

    In this regard, as an editorial policy, I will allow anonymous and pseudo-anonymous comments as long as they follow the basic policy of “Keep it substantive, serious minded, on topic, and respectful.”

    Really?  Then why did you not allow my comment of yesterday? 

  76. #77 jeannie lindsay
    February 19, 2010

    This is a perfect example of inductive fallacy:

    Trolls prefer anonymity.
    Therefore, anonymous posters are trolls.

    Come on, you can do better than that.
    Yeah, trolls post anonymously. I usually use a pseudonym because more people online recognize my pseud than my name. I am not a troll. The logic just…isn’t.

  77. #78 ScottW
    February 25, 2010

    Though I have no studies to back it up – only personal experience (yay anecdotal evidence!), I have to say that this is pretty spot-on.

    I’ve been online in various forms for a long time – I would wager longer than the vast majority of folks posting in this thread. I’m talking 1980 on, starting with hitting dial-up BBSs at 300 baud with an acoustic coupler (that’s the old-school modem where you stick the handset into a pair of cups) hooked to a TRS-80.

    I’ve been part of countless online communities (countless because I simply can’t remember them all), some where people used their real names (or at least appeared to), most where folks adopted nicknames/handles. The latter I would term semi-anonymous, because as time went on, folks would get to know each other to various degrees, sometimes in real life (user gatherings usually being the vehicle).

    As the internet has grown over the past 15 years or so, those communities have become vastly larger as far as geographic reach. Many of the groups I was part of before that were semi-local, and many participants had met in the flesh and socialized. As time went by, community participants became more and more physically remote from each other – precluding that social leap of meeting in real life and discovering that the other person is less/more of a jerk than you thought. :)

    I firmly believe that people will post comments of the sort that they would NOT post if there was the possibility of someone else, taking umbrage with that post, bumping into them in real life and punching them square in the nose.

    Hence the explosion of anonymous bile-filled posts – people know they can say whatever they want – even stuff they don’t themselves really believe! – with zero fear of getting decked. And that fear, I believe, is largely what keeps society from devolving. Politeness is partially about treating others with respect, but it’s also partly about not wanting to get your teeth kicked in.

  78. #79 Ajnabii
    March 9, 2010

    why dofollow blogs commented are spammer ?
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