This comment by Lassi Hippeläinen deserves notice:
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.
From the mouth of Finns!
Anonymity, as opposed to pseudonymity, has its utility in particular circumstances. For my own blogs though I discourage anonymity, and often won’t publish comments without distinctive handles. I call them “drive-by comments.” Sometimes they’re useful, but a disproportionate number of these sorts of comments are not useful, and are made without understanding the context of the post or discussion. If I ran a “muck-racking” website where “tips” were useful or encouraged, I’d probably have a different attitude.
Of course, even pseudonymity is often superficial. I’ve looked up many commenters via their email address, and often can find a Facebook page with their “real identity.” At a minimum IP information is often very informative. For example, a Muslim fundamentalist who was jabbering about how decadent and disgusting the West was naturally was posting his comments from Sheffield, UK. Another time I noted that a commenter exclaiming how incredible a multicultural society was actually was resident of a very homogeneous city, and that their EU citizenship allowed them to make different choices if they so chose. Revealed preferences matter. Another time I was having a discussion with a commenter who occasionally posted under a pseudonym, and the issue were assumed aspects of my personal life (the assumptions were by and large false). Since my own biography came up, I decided to look up the individual’s Facebook page, and then told them that I now knew their real name, associations, and had seen their photograph. I explained that now I felt more comfortable having a discussion on an equal playing field when it came to our personal experiences, but the commenter simply disappeared. I inferred from that the commenter was comfortable about talking about these issues with personal valence only if their own identity was something they could construct on their own terms, where they had all the power to shape perception and I naturally had less (since aspects of my own background are relatively well known).
Finally, over my nearly 8 years of blogging I have found that the odds ratio of insulting and “non-constructive” comments is greater from anonymous than from pseudonymous comments, and from pseudonymous than “real name” comments (again, using email addresses I’ve find that a non-trivial number of commenters use names that might not be their real name). But naturally that doesn’t mean that only commenters who use their real name are useful; most of the really informative and edifying commenters are pseudonymous, because a disproportionate number of comments are pseudonymous. Pseudonymous comments often tend to have more verve and punch than comments from people using their real names, so it isn’t as if there is a spectrum with only one dimension. On occasion because of the nature of this weblog I also receive comments from anonymous “drive-by” commenters which are extremely detailed, and exhibit a level of fluency with the material which warrants serious consideration. When I do an IP trace I often find that likely the commenter was somehow associated with, or a critic of, the research which I’m putting the spotlight on. The reason for anonymity here is rather obvious. Finally, sometimes when a discussion is going on I will intervene and note that pseudonymous commenter X “has creds” after doing a quick background check. Obviously I’m not going to disclose the specific information, but that fact should help reorient the discussion in a direction which is to everyone’s advantage.*
The blogosphere is then I believe an information ecology where different levels of personal disclosure may be optimal in serving everyone’s needs. The level of optimal disclosure will naturally vary by blog and the nature of the content and comment. I will, for example, tolerate a relatively personal critique from someone who uses their real name and email address which I likely would not if they were a pseudonym, and certainly would not if they were anonymous. Parity of disclosure is important if you’re going to operate in the zone of interpersonal familiarity. Finally, with subtle moderation technologies often the downsides of anonymous commenters in terms of incivility can be dampened. Actually demanding an email address, even if fake, actually weeds out 90% of the trolls.
* I have never disclosed specific personal information which could be identifying when I’ve found an anon or pseudo’s identity, but, when an anon or pseudo is extremely abusive or unproductive, disclosing that I actually know who they are invariably results in their disappearance. Though on one occasion I noticed the person reappeared later with a different pseudo, and their comments were much more constructive.