November 20, 2011

Facebook and Anonymity

News-Leader Editor David Stoeffler announced today that the paper will soon require readers to use Facebook in order to comment on content. It’s a good move:

The goal is to eliminate anonymity in the hopes of increased civility and conversation in comment threads.

In the long run, we also hope it will lead to increased participation, inviting in people — including community leaders — who often are turned off by the sometimes outlandish and even vicious comments from largely anonymous users.

The new Facebook Comments platform is being implemented across Gannett’s newspapers, following testing in four markets, including Des Moines, Iowa. The system allows any visitor to the website currently logged into Facebook to leave a comment on an article using their Facebook identity.

When the News-Leader first implemented a comment feature I argued for an open system that allows anonymity. I think anonymity was necessary to jump-start an online community. But I have also argued that such systems cannot remain anonymous because they become a haven for trolls who drive out civility and intelligence.

I’ve argued for a tiered system that preserves some anonymity and rewards transparency with greater service.

Facebook is all about the idea that one should have a single online identity. In the infographic below (click for larger view), Mark Zuckerberg makes the argument that transparency is a form of integrity. I agree. But Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan, counters that the cost of failure can be high if you contribute transparently. I agree with that, too, which means that we all need to be mindful of our civic voices.

6 Responses

  1. I am (as you might expect, as I am a pseudonymous internet entity) ambivalent about this. There are several things going on with the nym wars more than transparency and accountability, and different sites have to navigate the minefield in different ways. It may be important for newspapers (as ‘custodians of fact’) to adopt some sort of ‘real name’ policy, even at the cost that it entails, but it shouldn’t underestimate the cost.

    And then on top of that there’s the issue of handing a newspaper’s identity-checking service over to Facebook, a third-party profit-seeking entity that has interests widely divergent from the newspaper’s. Also, while many, many people are on Facebook, there is an impassioned minority who loathe it, and the newspaper not only loses their comments but possibly their eyeballs as they seem to side with FB over their readers.

    Oddly enough, I think that Google was attempting (with their no-pseudonyms on + policy) to position themselves as the arbiters of online identity, and it has been a disaster for them so far. I think there is a demand for some authentication system for those who want to use their ‘real’ names to connect with sites who want to restrict comments (or whatever) with people using their ‘real’ names. I don’t think it makes sense for that to be Facebook (or Google for that matter), but they seem to be the folks with the clout and the financial interest.


  2. acline 

    V- Hey! Long time, no see. Facebook could certainly be problematic. We’ll have specifics soon enough. I think this move is going in the right direction, but I still think my idea is better: a tiered system.

  3. Oh, I’m here all right, but (as you may remember) more interested in rhetoric than in journalism, so I’m reading with interest but usually don’t have much to say.

    I do think the tiered system is an idea worth trying, being more obviously an attempt to balance quality with inclusiveness. A group of newspapers could get together to do something like sbnation does, with a single (pseudonymous) log-in for commenting along with tiers of added responsibility for regular users that have shown they are adding value to particular sites within the network. It’s labor-intensive, which is fine for a sports site where people are happy to be volunteer groundskeepers, as it were, and would probably be fine for a newspaper that were already a community website. I should check back on patch and see how they are handling it.

    I wonder (by the way and off-topic) if you have looked into how newspapers and other news organizations are networking, by the way, as that seems to be one of the opportunities of the web. Something more clever than just linking to somebody else’s movie reviews, I mean. Linking from a local news story to other localities’ stories, particularly connected to big corporations or other institutions that have both a Big National and Many Local stories. Maybe this is old stuff, just not well done in my town, which wouldn’t be a surprise.


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  6. Tim 

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    I’m glad you linked to the previous post, the tiered system is a better solution.