Anonymity in reader comments has value

Doug Feaver, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, has a great column up about comments and the value of allowing them to not only be anonymous but unmoderated (other than by fellow commenters). This is a case I have tried — and continue to try — to make at the Globe and Mail, where I am the communities editor.

When I first took the job (and since) one of the first things people said was that our comments were unrelentingly bad and that we should require people to use their real names. I try to point out that while we are working on a number of ways to improve the tone of our comments, it’s virtually impossible to actually guarantee that someone has provided their real name, unless we ask them for their driver’s licence or credit card or SIN number, in which case we would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (I think in many cases what people want are real-*sounding* names, as opposed to obvious pseudonyms).

But in addition to that, I think the anonymity issue is largely a red herring, and that in fact there are many virtues to offering it, some of which I tried to outline in this post. Here’s a great excerpt from the Feaver piece:

I believe that it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a different context, “Man is least in himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

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