Commenters Anonymous: Why Real Names Aren’t the Answer

The Author Dave

Sure enough, YouTube seems like a nice place. There are happy banner ads, remixes of Bob Ross art instruction videos, and even some informative content as well. But, if you should ever wander off into the video comments section, you’ll find nothing but a hive of scum and villainy. Yes, there are rare, constructive comments, but YouTube is renowned for its near infinite supply of profane insults and remarks that call one’s mother’s fidelity into question. In addition to content, the comments often stretch the creative boundaries of spelling, syntax, and grammar. In short, you’re more likely to find El Dorado than a mature conversation on YouTube.

Google recognizes this issue. On July 24th, YouTube began pressuring users to connect their Google+ and YouTube accounts so that users would go by their real names when posting. This change, Google hopes, will clean up the infamous comments section and increase the amount of thoughtful conversation on the service. Still, the change is optional and a large number of users are not enthralled about attaching their real names to their accounts.

Google’s line of thinking goes like this: a person is less likely to post hateful, grammatically-deformed comments if these sentiments will be publicly attached to his or her good name. Friends, family, and employers could easily search for these comments and discover that said person has a penchant for insulting 12-year olds who sing covers of “Smooth Criminal,” a surefire way to sully a reputation. Google hopes that users will be more cautious about what they post and that this will lead to a better and more respectable online community.

The Case for Real Names

YouTube is not the first site to make this switch. Plenty of popular sites, such as TechCrunch, Hulu, and USA Today, require a social media profile login. If you take a look at the comments on these sites, you’ll generally find that the comments are more thoughtful. And by thoughtful, I mean there are considerably less instances of capslock-induced flaming.

In 2011, the Los Angeles Times switched the comments section of its blogs to a Facebook comment system. Jimmy Orr, the online managing editor, described the change in comment quality as “stunning.” Previously, the blogs needed almost constant policing. After the change, the blogs didn’t even require a single full-time moderator. Additionally, the pages received more referral links because the comments were posted onto the Facebook profiles of the users who made them.  For those keeping score, the blogs reduced costs (fewer moderators), garnered more page views, and created a friendlier community by switching to Facebook commenting.

Why the System Fails

Sounds incredible, right? But, like anything else, this system is not without flaws. First, not everyone has a Facebook or a social media profile. No, these deprived people aren’t riding around on a horse and buggy, they might just value privacy more than others. This group will be turned away by such a comment system. Second, attaching a real name to a profile won’t turn everyone civil. Haters will continue to hate. Just recently, Rotten Tomatoes had to shut down comments on The Dark Knight Rises critic reviews because some lovely individuals were issuing death threats to critics who gave negative reviews. While many of these individuals used pseudonyms, a significant number had their accounts connected to their Facebook. These nefarious users issued threats of violence even though their public names were visible for all to see. If that isn’t true evil, I don’t know what is. Even Bane didn’t stoop to Internet trolling.

In another case, in 2007, the South Korean government ordered all sites with over 100,000 users to use real names in an effort to curb internet barbarity. The policy reduced “unwanted comments” by an enormous…nine percent. That’s roughly half of an expletive. Recognizing its failure, the government reversed the order. Further analysis revealed that while lightest users reduced their swearing, the more industrious users went on with their trolling undeterred.

This last reason is by far the most important. When you attach a real name to a comment, there can be real consequences. This absolutely stifles free speech. Users will be more hesitant to express political opinions or state anything controversial if it can be traced back to them. Truly, anonymity is an integral part of America’s tradition of free speech (time to flex my history major). Many of the founding fathers used pseudonyms when debating the design of the Constitution by way of written word. Anonymity simply allows for more freedom.

Consider the example of an article about child abuse: If granted anonymity, a commenter might open up about his own personal experiences of being abused. This potentially enlightening comment would not be possible if not for anonymity. If this hypothetical comment system required said user to give a real name, he wouldn’t dare to post such a personal story.

This isn’t limited to extremely personal issues. Even sharing a political opinion might cause a person to incur personal or professional consequences. Real names will cause some to hesitate saying something offensive, but at the cost of causing others to hesitate contributing at all. This is something that every website must consider when deciding whether or not to install such a comment system.

Verdict

In my opinion, the ideal sort of commenting system would be a combination of the systems the Gawker blogs and Reddit employ. There would be anonymity to allow for free discussions. There would also be moderation from both the community and staff moderators to keep the trolls under the bridge and to ensure that the best comments rise to the top.  Of course, this would only work with a large enough community — a page with 10 or less comments, for example, might receive eight hateful comments and two constructive ones, making it difficult to moderate.
Still, real names do have a place. Take TechCrunch for example. The benefits of a real name system (marginally cleaner community and thus, less of a need for moderators) outweigh the constraints on expressive freedom. The discussions about technology news are usually innocuous. For a site like Reddit, where people can discuss any topic (read: cat pictures), no matter how personal, a switch to real names would devastate the community. Each site must take a good look at its community and weigh the benefits versus the costs.

(Image sources: eventmanagerblog, UMB, simplyzesty)

  • Oscar

    I really dislike systems that require Facebook/Twitter/Google+ log-ins mostly because many of them publish your activity directly to your wall or feed and managing the ones that do quickly becomes a hassle. I’m fine with YouTube listing my name on my own channel (I’ve already done that myself before Google bought YouTube), but it’ll be a sad, sad day for me when Google forces me to drop my username (which I use for everything; Steam, Xbox, Twitter, etc.) in favor of my full name.

  • Mike

    Very good article.

    The internet does suffer from ‘John Gabriels Internet Fuckwad Theory’ (reasonable person + anonymous persona = total fuckwad), but you can’t specifically stamp out the trolls without stamping out everyone else who uses a persona as a means of expression, like the examples the author wrote. Either its ok, or its not.

  • Richard B

    Real names are better in some respects, but I like anonymity better. Look at how anonymity allows whistleblowers to go forward on Wikileaks. And look at how anonymity works on http://www.dirtyphonebook.com to help people expose cheaters, molesters, etc.

    For a lot of mainstream uses, real names work better. What makes little sense to me is how Facebook and Google want real names – they just need people to sign into a consistent account to sell ads – it doesn’t matter for them to get real names or not, so I don’t get it from their perspective.

  • Fonty

    I am posting this comment anonymously.

  • Anon4fun

    Whether real names are or are not the answer is basically just a theoretical question of little relevance to current circumstances. The social sites don’t have the power to obtain a user’s real name. All they can do is make a rule (of questionable enforceability) requiring it. So, practically speaking, we should rather ask: Are real names POLICIES the answer? The answer is clearly NO, because the only users likely to follow such a policy are not the trolling type anyway. Whereas anyone at a site with intent to troll will simply employ a series of temporary disposable accounts with plausibly-real fake names to easily get around whatever real names policy is in place.

  • anonymous

    The proposal is another attempt to eliminate bad behaviour by removing the means, when we would be far better off, as a society, by removing the *motive*. This applies to all kinds of poor behaviour and requires a real shift in community priorities, but I don’t think we are ready for the social pendulum to swing back to generous education budgets yet.