Thoughts on anonymous internet commenting, riffing on @wawoodworth

I was reading the always-excellent Andy Woodworth on anonymous internet commenting (hey, guess who’s way behind on her Google Reader!). This started as a comment there but got long enough to be a post, so I’m putting it here (though by all means read him, too!).

So one of the things that generally bugs me, whenever the issue of anonymous commenting on the internet comes up, is it’s typically represented as two poles:
* anonymous
* not anonymous .

But to me, this misses the most important aspect: persistence.

There are many, many sites which have built thriving communities of people whose names are not revealed — but whose identities are persistent. (Wikipedia, Slashdot, and LiveJournal spring immediately to mind.) People under anonymous, but persistent, identities develop reputation linked to those pseudonyms. They can accrue prestige, responsibility, credibility, authority, even eminence in those communities. They can develop an identity with which they identify, and hence find worth defending. And one way to defend one’s identity is through self-presentation, including standards of conduct.

Persistent communities find ways to enforce these standards, too. They have their own cultures — which are not necessarily those of the rest of the world — but they do develop social norms, and they do enforce them. You can’t do that when identities are both anonymous and transient, but you can when they are anonymous and persistent.

Persistence has its down sides. It comes with technical and usability connotations which aren’t right for all situations. But it is an important middle ground between anonymity and non-anonymity, a nuance with which these arguments not only aren’t complete, but often degenerate into two camps throwing bombs at each other.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on anonymous internet commenting, riffing on @wawoodworth

  1. Yeah, anonymous vs non-anonymous is the liberal-conservative dynamic of internet commenting. We tend to hear from people on the extremes about this when there is a big fat middle that can see how anonymous commenting can work and how it can’t work. It comes down to the center of a group enforcing the rules of civility of their fellow commenters (anonymous or not).

    I’ve been in both kinds of communities; it really is up to the people who moderate and those who are frequent posters to set the tone on it. Just like the other social norms that have developed over time in cultures around the world. It’s not a stretch by any means of the imagination.

    Way to root for the middle, Andromeda!


    1. *g* I don’t actually take liberal/conservative to represent the extremes, but then again, my vantage point on politics encompasses a college friend who is literally trying to build secessionist nations on artificial islands. While I myself often gravitate toward middle ground, I’ve learned a lot more about politics from positions which…you can’t even characterize as extreme because they are not even located on the American political spectrum. But I take your point :).

      But yes, norms. Norms! I think we, as humans, are norm-generating machines, and we will do so in any environment that allows us to. Anonymous, non-persistent, digital identities don’t, but there are an awful lot of other ways to do anonymity, and some of them lead to norms fast.

      Glad you liked the post. Keep inspiring me and I’ll write more ;).


  2. I appreciate the protective anonymity on many forums, such as academic job wikis. I don’t have any issue with anonymous comments so long as they aren’t spam or demeaning and insulting in the tone they take toward my readership or me. Unfortunately, most of the anonymous comments we’ve received at Fashionable Academics fall into one of those two categories. And those types of comments get deleted quickly if they make it through the spam trap at all.


    1. Hey, nice to see you here!

      Academic fashion blogs are a great example I should’ve thought of in writing this post. I can imagine how many of the comments would be pretty terrible (how dare you violate the social norm in academe of pretending we don’t have bodies, and not caring what they look like!). But the flip side of that is that it seems the (admittedly few) academic fashion bloggers I know are anonymous/pseudonymous…well, at least as far as you can be when posting photographs of yourself…but, at least, full names and institutional identities are seldom included.

      I was commenting on another of Andy’s posts on this topic about different publics and how we present ourselves to them, and it seems like academics have an incentive not to present their fashion discourses to their academic publics…but it would be such a shame if you couldn’t present that discourse to any public, as there are those of us out there who value it. So that sort of anonymity (or at least pseudo-anonymity, cloaking) is allowing real value to be added to the world.


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