Off-topic: anonymous commenting, Facebook, and the future of online discussion*

*Almost definitely an overly ambitious title.

As a fan of hard rock and metal, one of the sites I visit on a daily basis is Blabbermouth.net. For more than 12 years, they have been an aggregator of news, reviews, and happenings in the rock and metal universe, and for me they’ve been the go-to site for that kind of content.

Since the beginning, Blabbermouth has had a typical comment system, where a user registers with the site, creates a user name and password, and is essentially anonymous – and, therefore, is free to be unrestrained with his or her speech on the site.

Blabbermouth has always had a policy against abusive language, racism, and so on, but it never seemed to be enforced. And with the previously mentioned commenter anonymity, there probably wasn’t much that could be done in such cases if abuse was reported, other than banning an account or even an IP address, but over the years it seemed to me that no comment was ever addressed by the admin. I came to accept that this was just the way the site was: it continued to post content, commenters did their thing, and if you didn’t want to read the comments, you didn’t read the comments.

On Monday night, I visited the site to find that at some point in the previous 24 hours, it had been relaunched in a new format. Gone are the full-length front page articles, the archaic post menu, and the long-standing, claustrophobic-dark look. In its place is a bright, clean, professional, modern looking website, with truncated posts and “Read More” buttons. In general, it is a much easier site to navigate from a “what’s happening right now” standpoint.

Also gone, however, is the old commenting system. If you want to comment at Blabbermouth.net now, you have to be signed in to Facebook. Which opens up an interesting can of worms for the site’s users…

There has been a lot of talk around the world lately about anonymous commenting and online discourse: I’ve heard a few stories about it on NPR and its affiliates (here¬†and here. for instance) in the past six months. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a subject of discussion within the WoW community.¬†Furthermore, with a couple of Google searches, you can find many articles about websites, such as online newspapers, getting rid of anonymous comments.

What’s interesting is that many sites that don’t allow anonymous commenting have integrated with Facebook. One of the benefits of doing so is that the site’s Facebook page can then highlight comments that it gets on its website, giving both the site and the comments/commenters more exposure (and, presumably, can lead to more discourse). As far as I can tell, it also takes a huge chunk of responsibility for the content of the discussion out of the hands of the website and places it squarely, in the end, on the user.

This is fairly simple to explain. On Facebook, the user is the person. The user isn’t “Neil Young’s Cocaine Booger” or “RiotAct666″ (real user names from Blabbermouth – I didn’t make them up myself). It’s you, the Facebook user with – potentially – real life friends and family, who are “friended” on the site and can presumably see every comment you make.

To my knowledge, Blabbermouth.net hasn’t made any announcement about the revamp of the site and the discussion system overhaul. When I saw how it had changed, my first thought was “they must have changed it to cut down on trolling.” That may or may not have played a part in their decision, but I’m inclined to think that, in addition to adopting a comment system that is in place on thousands of other websites (and is probably simple to implement), improving the quality of the discussion was a factor.

Additionally, Facebook is the closest thing there is to a universal sign-in system in the world, particularly when requiring that commenters use their real names is a desired feature. Facebook is used by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and nothing else that uses real names to commonly sign in to anything on the internet comes anywhere close to that magnitude. It’s a built-in sign-in system, with no site-specific registry required – unless, of course, you don’t use Facebook at all. Or, unless you don’t want to use your Facebook login to make comments on other websites…

While anonymous posting/commenting is as alive as it has ever been, there seems to be something of a growing movement toward requiring real names in order to comment on websites.

I’m curious to see how this plays out over the next several years. As more sites stop allowing anonymous commenting, will there be more ways to require that users log in as real persons, other than using Facebook? Or will this be something that becomes the lifeblood of Facebook, as more and more young people enter the online sphere looking to use the new “it” social media format – not FB – but are forced to use Facebook in order to be a part of a growing piece of the online discourse pie?

Or, will there be sections of that pie that begin to skew less toward the opinions of young users simply because such sites’ comment requirements will restrict them to Facebook, while these users would rather use Tumbler / Twitter / whatever the next big thing(s) is(are)?

Personally, I sit in the camp with those who don’t want to use their Facebook logins to comment on other sites. This is not because I am young and hip (…), but rather because I just don’t like Facebook. I barely ever comment on Facebook itself. I don’t trust Facebook. There are many reasons for this, and I won’t get into them here, because I’ve never written a 5000 word post before, and I don’t feel like having my first one be about Facebook. But there are privacy issues, data-collection and -sharing issues, and others that make me extremely uncomfortable with the idea of just going ahead and giving in to it, and posting my life and opinions and whatnot there… and, therefore, having my account linked with various other websites doesn’t make me feel easy.

With respect to Blabbermouth.net, I don’t really care. I didn’t ever bother commenting there before, and I don’t think that will change. But I also never comment on a site that requires Facebook. If FB is an option, but you can also use an alternative, I’ll comment if there is an alternative that I like.

I do like the fact that, intended or not, Blabbermouth has stopped so much of the terrible commentary on its site with one fell swoop. There is value in that. But I go to that site for news and videos and so on, not for the comments. The comments there have historically been mainly garbage, although there has been good discussion on rarer occasions.

I just wish that there were non-Facebook alternatives for sites like that, where the burden of moderating could be kept to a minimum without requiring FB. Right now, I don’t know that there is any other solution on the horizon.

Thanks for reading this post by Mushan at Mushan, Etc. Comments are welcome!


4 Comments on “Off-topic: anonymous commenting, Facebook, and the future of online discussion*”

  1. I don’t even have a facebook account. I grew out of this whole social network collect friends and likes thing before even myspace hit the scene. Yes, I am older than many users.

    With that said, having me sign in on facebook scares me away from the site. I would prefer not to use a site that is connected to one universal thing. But with that said, there is a way around it.

    So now is where I say, but I lied. I do have a facebook account, actually I have had 20 or 30 of them over the years. Whenever I sign up to a new online service that requires me to have a facebook account I go and make a brand new facebook account to link to that thing and that thing only. Fake name, fake information, fake everything. It is a throwaway account with no connection to me what so ever.

    It is not so much that I wish to remain anonymous but that I do not believe it is necessary for everyone to know everything about me to comment. Like for instance here, why should you know me real name, where I live, where I work, where I went to school, who my girlfriend is, when are we going on vacation and where too or a myriad of other things about me?

    I just do not think any of that information is required to have a conversation, to view a website, or basically anything else online. I think, as you said, many sites use it as a way to moderate without needing to moderate.

    Sooner or later everyone will just be smart and do like I do. Have a different account for everything. I play a lot of those online games where it says like on facebook for a bonus, or share on facebook for something special. I have a facebook account for each of them. There are not even tied to one big game use only account, but I could do that too.

    Anonymity is still there for the people that do not want to share their personal details and I can assure you if I can think of it and I have zero intention of trolling or being rude anywhere I go, the internet trolls and jerkwads also have already and they have facebook accounts just for trolling.

    You want an alternative to facebook? It is facebook. Use it to your advantage. Like I said, I have 20 or 30 accounts already. Just make them and use them. They are all throwaway garbage anyway.

  2. R says:

    I’ve never done the social networking thing, just didn’t see the point. I hate the idea of 24×7 status updates in general, whether for me or for people I know. If they’re into that it’s something I’d rather not know (right up there with watching reality TV, what I don’t know about them is often to my benefit). Also, as GE said and to expand a bit, for me it’s more about that I don’t need all of these various aspects of my online life being tied together. What I read, what I comment on, what I buy, where I go, who I hang out with, etc, have nothing to do with each other and I have no clue why any other person would care about any of that. I also don’t get reality TV, though, so maybe just it’s a related form of voyeurism. I don’t look at accidents when I drive by, last thing I need to see is a severed head on the road. I’m not wired in the “I just had to look” way that some people are, I guess, and I’d rather not give those folks an open look into my life. I’ve never had the urge to be the male JenniCam.

    Requiring FB would just be a non-starter for me, I wouldn’t comment on the site. There are a few WoW blogs around that require an established login (Google, etc), I just don’t comment on those sites either. I’ve started using R on blogs rather than straight Anonymous as a semi-identifier but I don’t know if that’s necessarily any better since it doesn’t tie me to anything. And anyone could post as R. Or The Grumpy Elf, for that matter.

    The problem with a centralized, standardized identity on the Internet is that it can’t be free. The only way for something like that to be free is for there to be some back-end way to monetize it and at that point it may as well BE Facebook or Google or anyone else out there who thinks this whole privacy thing is way overblown. Privacy is dead, don’t ya know, and the sooner we all get over it, the sooner Facebook can start making REAL money. I’ve been anticipating a real, significant backlash over all of this for a few years now and it just isn’t happening. Occupy Teh Interwebs?

    Unfortunately, some/many/most folks on the Internet are so used to free-with-strings that I don’t think a strings-free pay system would be able to get enough traction to become ubiquitous. Plus, who would you actually trust to manage that and not abuse it? The EFF? Mark Cuban? The Cayman Central Bank? I think I’d rather have the mob or Hell’s Angels running it than Facebook. Seriously. At least they have a code.

  3. Jaeger says:

    Going to agree with you guys for the most part.

    I use Facebook for certain things but my only friends are people I actually know in real life. I’ll post articles or videos once in a while that I think my friends should see and maybe post a photo once in a blue moon or something. I don’t “like” random things though or use Facebook to login on other sites.

    If a site requires some third party login system, I just don’t post there. It’s really hard to stay anonymous on the web anymore, but I see no reason to make it super easy for everything I do to be tracked. I’m a big advocate of things like NoScript, Cookie Managers, DoNotTrack, etc.

  4. Mushan says:

    Awesome comments, guys. Thanks so much for your perspectives! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels Facebook logins are a poor option.


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