Should Content Providers Stop Allowing Anonymous Comments?

Facebook Product Design Manager Calls for Online Accountability

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[ Social Media]

Facebook product design manager Julie Zhuo contributed an op-ed piece to the New York Times, which calls for content providers to stop allowing for anonymous comments on their content, in an effort to maintain accountability for what is said. 

This is not a new subject, nor an easy one, and despite Zhuo taking a clear stance on it, she does present both sides of the debate: accountability vs. privacy and freedom of expression.

A lot of blogs are encouraging (or even requiring in some cases) users to log in with their Facebook accounts. There’s no question that Facebook has a vested interest in the decay of anonymity. Facebook wants to own your identity. Facebook has always looked down on anonymity though, even before Facebook Connect existed. That’s why unlike MySpace or Twitter, Facebook requires you to use an actual name (rather than a handle) for your Facebook Profile. 

While there are cases where fake accounts are created, Facebook has even over-enforced this policy in some cases. Remember the woman named Yoda that was blocked because she shared a name with a popular Star Wars character? 

That’s not to say Zhuo doesn’t make a compelling case, citing known examples of when anonymous comment "trolls" have crossed well over the line of human decency. Here’s a sample from the piece:

After Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old Long Island girl, committed suicide earlier this year, trolls descended on her online tribute page to post pictures of nooses, references to hangings and other hateful comments. A better-known example involves Nicole Catsouras, an 18-year-old who died in a car crash in California in 2006. Photographs of her badly disfigured body were posted on the Internet, where anonymous trolls set up fake tribute pages and in some cases e-mailed the photos to her parents with subject lines like “Hey, Daddy, I’m still alive.”

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

Still you have to think a lot of valuable content would be lost if comments were no longer able to be anonymous. Some people just don’t want to put themselves out there like that, and it’s not always a matter of accountability. Some people just have genuine concerns about privacy. 

I’m sure there are also plenty of people who have valuable things to add to conversations that just don’t feel like taking the extra steps necessary to authenticate their identities (not everyone is a Facebook user, mind you, and not all Facebook users trust Facebook with their privacy).  On the other hand, it would reduce the noise too.

Then there is the fact that enforcing any kind of accountability is just not an easy task, and Zhuo acknowledges this. People can give fake names, email addresses, etc. Although, this may be one of Facebook’s ways of encouraging Facebook email address adoption too.

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It’s an interesting problem with no easy solutions. If the web has taught us anything during its existence, it’s that people will always find ways to abuse it.  

Caller ID has been a pretty popular feature for phones though. 

Do you think online anonymity should be erased? Do you think it can be? Share your thoughts.

Should Content Providers Stop Allowing Anonymous Comments?
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  • k.p.govindachari

    Now-a-days sharing the thoughts of other and knowing the opinion of others in this modern world is a welcome aspect. because every country is dealing globally these days people will know each others society,culture,development and future as well by sharing the moment and experience. If human being wants to flourish these kinds of sharing platform is most essential for the world.
    k p govindachari india

  • http://doablefinance.com/ Doable Finance

    There is good and bad about anonymous commenter. On my blog, when I respond on their email address, many times it’s undeliverable. I probably agree with the wrong email address but for a blogger, sometimes it is not very fruitful. I think you can reason either way.

    • Chris Crum

      Yes, it’s certainly a debatable subject.

  • http://www.avaricemedia.com Anon

    I am sick of people using my name, get your own dam name people, Regards Anon.

    • Guest

      winner! LOL

  • http://www.5movers.com Jason Davies

    At www.5movers.com and our blog we do not allow any anonymous comments. If somone is interested in commenting on anything, anywhere, we believe that it only common decency to identify yourself.

  • http://archermusic.synthasite.com/ Jerald Franklin Archer

    ANONYMOUS means someone is either hiding something, is saying something stupid (and knows it) or a coward in general. It works only for those individuals who usually have the most unintelligent comments to post, but is usually done for the often pointless “shock factor” more than anything. I understand the psychology behind it, but seeing it done as much as I do, often disturbs me. What is often forgotten by some “anon” wiseacres is that they are not as Anonymous as they might believe. There are certain individuals who have the ability and power to know exactly who they are. This is an important group of individuals to have today, as some individuals need watched constantly in order to keep them out of trouble–and those are just the adults who call themselves “anonymous”.

    Kids with too much time on their hands probably make up the greatest portion of the Anonymous crowd, as the evidence is usually very clear as to the level of world experiences and general intelligence by the very way in which they communicate. Ignorance is usually at the very forefront of bad and rude comments, which is a sad reality that should not be happening in this world of available information (as long as one is certain of what information is true, which most do not have the proper skills to ascertain through deduction and logic today).

    It is not really a problem so much of bad people commenting improperly, but the lack of properly skilled moderators. There is a simple solution to the whole affair: If a comment is offensive (towards any person, political group, religious beliefs or races), then don’t allow it to be posted. In this world of detailed rules and regulations, which are necessary in order to maintain order, the governments would have to be the ones to enforce proper comment regulations, as the private companies seem to be failing. In other words, certain censorship is what would have to be practiced in order for it to work.

    People in general do not understand the real meaning of “free speech”, but instead believe it means one can say anything they want and the abuse of the right is acceptable. This is an error which, if continued to be practiced, will result in the loss of the actual right to say what one wants to. Then people began to cry about the loss of free speech, but are clueless as to why it happened. One can say many things in many ways, and one must remember that comments are a direct reflection of both the individual person and the society in which they live. All should work at fostering a respectful society by honoring respect itself for others first, and ones opinions second. One should never forget that personal opinions can never be the truth, nor the truth contain any opinions.

    Say what you mean and mean what you say, but do it in an intelligent and respectful manner. This always works in order to really get a message across. The cardinal rule is never attempt to “debate” with a poster who obviously does not possess the proper weapons necessary for a fair fight. And one should also never apologize for verbosity, as this is the key to making certain one is getting the message across in a disturbingly “dumbed-down” world today.

    • Guest

      My friend, are you sure you are not a commy? You must be a lib. The government regulating commenting?

      • Jerald Franklin Archer

        As for your snide reply, no I am not a commie. Did you even understand what I wrote or what I am saying? You assume to put a label on me, but fail to consider the reality of what I am saying in general..and you don’t leave a real name. I am actually a very traditional conservative Catholic who understands the importance of why some individuals need censored…..they are not helping to help anyone, but only continue to do damage that WE have to constantly repair. Liberal minds do not think about such matter, as they would not care one way or the other. They want chaos, where order is really a better choice–even if it means losing some freedoms. Respect my points, and you will see respect yourself, just like I stated in my comment.

    • Roy

      “ANONYMOUS means someone is either hiding something, is saying something stupid (and knows it) or a coward in general. It works only for those individuals who usually have the most unintelligent comments to post,”

      Actually I believe “anonymous posters” actually use their brains, have not your out of this world and naive view of reality and are not arrogant, low self esteem pricks who like to overuse big words to impress others. Usually your type ends up on somebody’s dinner table on your belly with an apple in their mouth screaming “How did I end up here!!! I never thought this would happen to me!!”. Make sure you look both ways before you cross the streets. There are these rectangular things called “cars” that can kill you. Your ignorance of reality doesn’t make you right.

      • Jerald Franklin Archer

        Your reply is typical of those that are not understanding what is being said by my post at all. Take time to look around you.

  • Guest

    Take the example of Webpronews changing the site’s design for an unfriendlier one and requiring a facebook account in order to post a comment. I didn’t comment here until they allowed free commenting again. Why give you the key to my jail cell for free? Anything you say on the internet, whether good or bad can come back to haunt you. Whether it is a fairly positive but critical review to a negative one, it can be used against you. Internet is supposed to be a cesspool by design. Trolls, online or offline are a fact of life and business must learn to live with them or not do business at all.

  • http://planetlgbt.org Sean

    I don’t think any networking social site should play as “Intellectual Police”, however from a marketing stand point allowing users to interact without becoming a member wouldn’t encourage enough combined interaction or return visits.

    Planetlgbt.org takes very seriously our roll as a host and has taken severe measures to ensure the anonymity of it’s users by allowing for unconfirmed identities, free accounts w/o financial verification and w/o server side ip data collection. Our network platform however does allow for each user to block comments and contact from any other user giving each person the ability to experience our site the way they want to. Finally, it is our opinion that you can say whatever you want when you want and to leave it up to the individual users to accept or view thoughts from other members.

  • http://viktoriamichaelis.com Viki

    It is indeed a debate which will rage, on and off, for as long as the Internet exists, no matter which form it may take in coming years. That Facebook, of all organisations, should be showing an interest does not necessarily mean that we can look forward to better sites and systems in the future. For me the Facebook move is merely a marketing ploy, an attempt to show that they are considering the privacy and security of their customers.

    The reality is other, as we can see from comments posted on this very site. Anyone can create a throwaway identity, go into an Internet cafe far from their residence, post whatever they wish. For those receiving comments, mails and messages this fact of life can be very hard indeed. However, they need to be schooled in the ways of the Internet, in the shallow ways of many people who use the Internet. It is not always the under-educated, welfare or psycho who makes this a bad place to be: often comments come from ordinary people, well educated, well paid, family loving and all that who suddenly wish to present their opinion in another form or vent their rage as an anonymous entity.

    Preventing such Trubute sites as we have seen over the last few years is a matter for the providers. This is no longer something where they can claim Freedom of Speech or Expression. Tribute sites just as much as new accounts by Facebook, MySpace, Xing or wherever should be controlled initially, run through a probationary period. Thereafter better abuse reporting systems should take over, not that child pornography can sit on Facebook for five to ten hours before someone reacts to an abuse report, as has happened recently.


  • http://www.acronsystems.com Allann Burton

    Anonymity could be maintained by entering false information in the first place, admins would need to vet and verify each account. In our case customers make purchases and credit card checks verify a customers details.

    I do agree with Jason Davies that identifying yourself when you post is common decency but it does not guarantee common decency in the posts made by registered users.

    At www.acronsystems.com we found that anonymous post allowed people to leave a quick comment and input with a solution to a problem that may have not been made otherwise negative or inappropriate posts get removed.

    another option is that anonymous posts are subject to be checked by a admin before being published on their blog, and all posts with certain words to be flagged for checking by admin.

    for us it is more important to focus on content and what is being posted the who is posting it.

  • http://christianityetc.org Bob

    If a person is concerned about their privacy, they should never publish anything or run for a public office. If a publisher wants to be considered reputable and worthy of customer respect, he or she should have some fairly high standards for the quality of what he or she publishes, otherwise it will considered to be spam or propaganda. There is a difference between a news report and an editorial, but they both should have cited real authors.

    • http://www.jacksononthemoon.com Sharon J

      Not only should you not publish, write or run for public office, you should not own a bank account, hang out in bars, vote, own a computer or have friends who take your picture with their cell phonse and post it on line. It is almost impossible in this day and age to enjoy any privacy at all.

      And as for Anonymous Content, I think it is impossible, but that does not mean we should not try. Requiring people to at least log in may prevent the worst of the abuse. I have stopped using several forums because of Neanderthal “guests,” who use them as an opportunity to vent their rage, their grasp of foul language and their bad spelling and grammar.

  • http://www.horizoncottages.co.za Cape Town Holidays

    whilst I understand the need for accountability of what is posted on the web; those who do not regularly blog or post content may be put off by having to register with a web or blog site before they can leave a comment. Because we are involved in the tourism and travel industry and have a high visibility on the Internetwe have taken the trouble to register with so many portals and websites to leave feedback because we wish to be seen as honest and transparent. The process of registration in order to leave identified feedback may possibly deter somebody from leaving useful feedback or comment. Most blogs as well as websites have the option to accept or reject the comment and this can be used to ensure that what is left is appropriate.

  • http://www.web-media.co.uk/component/option,com_idoblog/Itemid,0/id,130/task,viewpost/ WebMedia Search Optimisation

    I have always had a feeling that if you are not prepared to own up to your beliefs or in this case posted comments then why should anyone be expected to take them or you seriously if you, yourself, are not prepared to own them.

    Freedom of Speech is just that, having the freedom and knowledge that what you think, believe, discuss, publish, is your right with the understanding that you will be either supported or argued against for expressing them, as others can, freely.

    That freedom is tempered by either your own taste, honesty and the laws of libel and slander that your statements might infringe.

    I don’t think that hiding behind the notion that Some people just have genuine concerns about privacy is justifiable and if you feel strongly enough about something then stand up and be counted.

  • http://www.mikebrooksonline.com Mike Brooks

    Wow! This is such a tough question. On that I imagine will (may already) be the topic of college ethics classes.
    Privacy is so important. But on the other hand, the idea that someone would be able to do some of the deplorable things mentioned in this article is just beyond words.
    The question is how much are we willing to sacrifice for privacy. I am glad this is not my decision to make.
    As a person who markets online, I feel that it needs to be easy for people to participate in the conversation. Removing privacy is one more barrier placed in some people’s paths.
    But there are things that publishers can do to help too. For one, as a blog publisher, I don’t allow blind blog commenting. Everything posted to my blogs must first go through a spam filter and then through a human filter.
    These are difficult decisions that service providers will need to make. I sure hope whatever their decisions are, they give it proper thought and dabate and make the right one.

  • http://www.digitalraindrops.net David Cox (Digital Raindrops)

    I write WordPress tutorials and have the Disqus plugin, this allows facebook, twitter and anonymous comments.

    As a freelance developer I know that many professionals have fake accounts or use anonymous comments, if someone is stuck with a bit of code or is looking for an answer to a problem they use this method to resolve the problem.

    Looking at the way the internet is used many potential employers know more about a candidate before an interview, more than the candidates casual friends would know.

    In a lot of industries someone will know someone else who knows them, then there is the mighty Google search engine, the employer enters the candidates name and looks at the returned links.

    If the prospective employers finds a few links where the candidate is asking what might be considered basic questions for the industry, this could affect the chances of securing the contract or placement.

    The fact that the questions are several years old and asked when the candidate started in the business is overlooked.

    So do you go with the majority that use anonymous comments for their own good reasons, or the few bad ones.

    Maybe a checkbox ‘post as anonymous’ that will hide a profile and display as anonymous any comments to the public, but with a verified email hidden for audit and legal reasons.

    Maybe if it said “Facebook Verified by Anonymous” would give peace of mind.

    Just my two cents or two pence depending where you are!


  • http://www.robbellwebdesign.com Rob

    Although it would be nice to force the trolls to use their real name so we could identify them, stopping anonymity also stops the cases where anonymity is vital to protect someone from harm.

    Sometimes anonymity is necessary so a voice is heard. It’s not always a bad thing, and one of the Internet’s greatest achievements is giving the voiceless a voice, and giving those repressed a place to tell the world about the horrors taking place.

    If there were no anonymity online, people would lose this ability, and we’d be a far worse planet for it. The right of anonymity must be preserved.


  • http://brianelwinpomeroy.posterous.com/ Brian Pomeroy

    One of my top concerns in society is the present laws on prohibition and I believe the wealthy and the powerful are keeping it that way so that the rest of us can fight and kill or otherwise weed each other out of the

  • http://www.searchen.com Searchen

    How about author/journalist/columnist pen names??
    Is that going to go under the microscope too now….??
    This sort of thing has been standard practice since the 17th Century…

    • http://cass-hacks.com Craig Schultz

      Authors, journalists and columnists all answer to someone and that someone knows who they are so each are accountable one way or another.

      Both Mark Twain’s and Richard Bachman’s publishers knew who they really were long before anyone else did.

      The Internet changes things and pretty much has blown a big hole in what used to work as ‘standard practice’.

      Accountability creates somewhat of a ‘moral leash’ and without it, social mores too often get ignored.

      Just as ultimate power can corrupt ultimately, total freedom often gets abused.

  • http://buyandholdplus.com/blog Guest

    I allowed anonymous comments on my blog and I got hundreds of spam comments per day. Then I said screw it and required registration. I’m not getting any comments now, but I don’t care. I’d prefer silence versus spam.

  • http://occasion-to-be.com Occasion2B

    footprints in Sand

    it’s not the messenger – it’s the message –
    the meaning is decided by the receiver

  • Isaiah62

    , Facebook has even over-enforced this policy in some cases.

    no they don’t
    it is very selectively enforced
    any given day you can find accounts named Santa claus and more
    Facebook allows Nazi content and Jihad sites to flourish without molestation

    how can you prevent anonymity on the web? you can’t – too easy for any person to set up fake or 2nd 3rd identities- how could it possibly be enforced?

    you would have to scan passports or licenses
    damned if I would give Zuckerberg any ID- bad enough I used my real email addy on FB now I am inudated with crap spam- should have and wihed I had violated the rules & used my alias from hotmail

    If crimes occur like your example, law enforcement can track by IP- and websites can use email to validate as they do now- purchases do require your real identity and credit card- I would not do that for Facebook

    anyonymity is refreshing sometimes people say what they really think- owners can delete troll posts and spam, use spam blocks

    in my case and few other people I know – have a certain controversial subject that may put us at risk for attacks (real, not cyber)- damned if I would put my real name and addy on those posts- I depend upon anonymity to protect me

    and keep govt regulation OUT of internet- we likeinternewt it works as is- people need to just allow it and stop interfering in it’s natural growth

    a BIG GIANT NO TO NET NEUTRAILY- no big brother mandating our content

    • http://brianelwinpomeroy.posterous.com/ Brian Pomeroy

      Information is power and the truth is information you can use. How the information is used is the tricky part.

      (These are my comments to Ezra Levant in Canada)

      “If that’s difficult to grasp, then consider if Wikileaks had hacked into a bank computer to steal customers’ credit card information and then published that on the internet.
      (If it was a multibillionaire who is hiding behind the law, maybe.)

      Journalism? (Are we trusting the media to get the entire story or just what the presenter presents?)

      Free speech? (Been debated and does show who is and is not on the take and or other motives.)

      Of course not — theft, breach of privacy, and perhaps fraud, too. The speech part isn’t the pith and substance of it; the theft is.” (It was whistle blowing, not theft. If the young military man had someone to trust, it would not have happened. Wall Streets

  • Anon Guest

    Some people treat others badly and think there won’t be any consequenses. They rob, steal, and lie and think there’s nothing anyone can do about it because they will sue for slander or libel. That’s B.S! If you’re an a$$hole, be prepared for everyone to know it. Power to the people!

  • Guest

    Free posts, free tweets, free this free that — the Internet has become a garbage pile of useless posts such as “I’m brushing my teeth now…” and “Going outside to walk the dog” — good grief; make everyone register and pay and things will get a lot less cluttered …

    The irony is — I posted this for free ;-)

  • Guest

    Shouldn’t people have the freedom to say what they feel?
    AND should they not also be ultimately responsible for what they say?

    Without responsibility for one’s own actions, are we really free?

  • http://www.nexusinternational.biz/ Krishna Pillai

    Anonymous Comments may be right when viewed from the perspective of privacy or freedom of opinion, but it is mostly abused by many users by using obscene language, SPAMMING with several URLs of their sites including pornography, and even being racially and otherwise abusive. They irritate even the moderator, when moderation is enabled. So, personally, I do not allow such comments in my blogs and sites. There has to be some checks and balances. So, some thing has to be sacrificed in favour of the other. For this reason, this is a highly personal issue and there cannot be a common consensus on it.

  • http://www.culturekiosque.com Joseph Romero, Editor-in-Chief

    As a press organization, Culturekiosque welcomes and encourages letters to the editor and comments from its readers, in English or in French, and we delight in publishing such feedback for the benefit of our entire readership. However, we have taken the decision not to implement the “Web 2.0″ functionalities that allow for instant and anonymous feedback forums, however de rigueur such forums may seem nowadays. Call us terribly old-fashioned, if you must, but we find that the anonymous forums can often devolve into something less than the substantive sharing of reasoned ideas for which the technology was developed.

    It is the policy of Euromedia Group Ltd. to publish letters and comments in Culturekiosque supporting or opposing a particular issue within a reasonable ratio reflecting both sides.

    All letters and comments are verified for authenticity. They must be accompanied by a full name, address, daytime telephone number and, if faxed or mailed, be signed. E-mail submissions are preferred and can be sent to editors@culturekiosque.com for English language submissions and redacteurs@culturekiosque.com for those in French.

  • http://www.website-consultancy.com Website Consultancy

    I think the simple answer is Yes.

    I don’t think users should be required to log-in using their Facebook account or any other account, I see no problems with users logging in using a pseudonym, as some web users have a pseudonym which they prefer to use on line, which over time can develop its own character and may even generate a following.

    But, to post stuff without anything traceable is like saying, “I have something to say”, but haven’t got the courage to stand by it. The final parts of your article Chris should make anyone sad, to post anything post mortem, in this type of context is a base aspect which shouldn’t be allowed.

  • sofakingdabest

    A resounding YES.

  • http://www.askthecarbuyguy.com Jim

    My blog page has been growing in popularity recently and I’m receiving numerous comments with each article. I attempt to review each comment because I usually receive valuable content for the most part. Yes, I receive those weirdo’s as does each of us. The one thing I’m about to change in my comments section is a verifiable email address section. I’m asked numerous questions and also need of advice. I’m unable to supply due to bogus email addresses given to cover the writers identity. I use essentially the same comment format as this. But, do I trust you to not sell my information to marketeers? Or put it out there for the world to see?
    I would never do that, nor do I save anyones info to email market them. Unfortunately the web has been tapped by the criminal mind and the greedy!! It makes for those of us with an honest web page to make changes to thwart their underhanded tactics.

  • http://www.fastnote.com Warren Hart

    Fastnote http://www.fastnote.com was announced this week. The motto is: “Speak your mind. Praise what

  • http://tothefuturewithlove.net/after_the_pink_goat Freedom Goat

    I don’t think you can compare caller ID with Facebook authenticating. Because I don’t get unknown people to call me and when someone I don’t know call me, I always have a red light in my mind this could be something dangerous or illegal or just useless.
    On the Internet on the contrary, I don’t regard anonymous commentaries differently than authenticated. I read them and reply to the message, not to the person. So for me, there is no comparison between the two.
    The story about the suicide is sad, but when you do a tribute, you should at least put some captcha and other spam detection to avoid trolls and spammers. When it comes to personal event, from any kind, of course, it’s best to keep it personal, just you would do in your normal life. And people already do that by limiting who can view their personal photos, videos and so on, to people they know.
    But if we speak of commenting on blogs and news stories and so on, we speak of totally different type of communication. Stories look for opinion of people, not for opinion of personalities. And here, freedom of expression is a key moment! If you make all the people to authenticate with Facebook, some people just won’t speak. I very very rarely use my Facebook profile to comment. Just because I don’t see why opinion should be in any way connected to my face, profession or personality. Not because I’m ashamed of it, but because I think what I say should be read as it is, without background history and authority check. Obviously we all have some areas on expertise, but for example, I’m a scientist – I refuse to put my name behind something I didn’t carefully check, develop and publish. It’s obviously you can’t do that for every opinion you give on the web. It’s absurd.
    And that’s why I don’t expect people to give me their real names when the comment on my blog and I don’t ban anonymous comments. My spam settings take care of the real nuisances but everyone else is treated as a normal comment with possibly important opinion. Freedom of expression! And of privacy!

  • Guest

    I am not sure you can draw an association between Anonymity and Bullies.

    People are just mean and nasty people. Most of us think about ourselves first and everyone else later.

    There are still going to be mean people in this world no matter what level of Tagging, or ID’ing occurs.

    Maybe there will be more people thrown in jail or put through correctional institutions?

    Come on… if someone hasn’t learned what an ass they are after a certain amount of time, empowering them self-responsibility isn’t going to help. It just fuels face to face combat. The biggest Bully still comes out on top whether they identify themselves, or whether they remain anonymous.

    Fights happen, and people are picked on when they’re identities are known. Accountability doesn’t happen without understanding the repercussions, usually ones that hit you back.

    In a world full of ego maniacs, how are you going to squeeze any empathy out of them?

  • http://www.ottawaroofing.net Chem

    As long as the host has a copy of your ip adress, it make no difference who is bihind that wall.

  • raymond


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