Names, faces and anonymous comments

Click on image to visit "Greater Boston"

Have we reached the final days for anonymous news-site commenters? Probably not — that’s more hope than reality. But there’s no doubt the tide is shifting away from the anonymous and pseudonymous insults, libel and hate speech that comprise the majority of comments at news sites.

This past Sunday, the Boston Globe Magazine posted a feature by Neil Swidey on the anonymous commenters who waste electrons on the Globe’s website, Boston.com. Except that Swidey didn’t quite succeed. The truly anonymous whackos with whom he hoped to connect refused to crawl out from under their rocks. Instead, he ended up with a highly entertaining profile of two men who didn’t mind revealing their identities and to a female Red Sox fan who all but identified herself. Swidey writes of his quest to interview the worst of the worst:

[H]ere are the people I didn’t hear back from: the screamers, troublemakers, and trolls (Internet slang for people behind inflammatory posts). Not a single one. The loudest, most aggressive voices grew mum when asked to explain themselves, to engage in an actual discussion. The trolls appear to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.

The story is accompanied by a video starring the two men. Also, last night Swidey talked about the story with “Greater Boston” host Emily Rooney on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). I couldn’t find a direct link, but you’ll find it easily enough if you click here or on the image above.

For much of the year, the news business has been growing increasingly uneasy over anonymous comments. Swidey himself discusses some of the problems — legal challenges that could force news organizations to help potential libel plaintiffs expose commenters they want to sue, and the bizarre situation at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which outed a judge who had apparently been commenting on her own cases under a pseudonym. (For what it’s worth, Media Nation started requiring real names earlier this year.)

As Rooney points out in her interview with Swidey, just yesterday the Buffalo News announced that it would soon banish anonymous comments. And American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder has called for an end to anonymity, pointing out that the same newspapers that allow them customarily ban anonymous letters to the editor and do not allow unnamed sources to level personal attacks. Rieder writes:

Comments sections are often packed with profanity and vicious personal attacks. The opportunity to launch brutal assaults from the safety of a computer without attaching a name does wonders for the bravery levels of the angry.

One alternative, which I’ve mentioned before, is to use Facebook as a commenting system. Nearly everyone on Facebook uses his or her real name, usually accompanied by a photo. The Globe itself is among newspapers that posts links to some of its stories on Facebook, where you will find a far more civil conversation than what’s on Boston.com.

Anonymous commenting is an idea whose time has come and gone. Whatever hopes early Internet visionaries had that anonymity could be compatible with community have long since proven to be wrong. I hope Swidey’s story serves as an inadvertent spur to the Globe — and to other news organizations — to end this failed experiment.