Earlier this morning, Arianna Huffington announced that the Huffington Post would no longer accept comments from anonymous users. While HuffPo's decision will reignite what has been a long-standing conversation about online use since the Internet's Usenet days, rabble.ca users on our online discussion forum babble have always had intelligent things to say about the issue.
Currently, rabble.ca allows anonymous users and commenting (although it might more accurately be called pseudonymous commenting). We employ two part-time moderators who scan the discussion board daily for trolls and spammers -- and who do their best to uphold babble's unique board policy, which tries to ensure babble is not a place where "the basic and fundamental values of human rights, feminism, anti-racism and labour rights are to be debated or refought." This goal has presented a challenge to users and moderators since its inception in 2001.
But would outlawing anonymity help make commenting a safer and more productive place to be? This discussion on babble has been working on that question for awhile. The lure of using our real names online was immediately stated by Sean in Ottawa:
If everyone wrote what they thought over their own name and we preserved the right to say what we beleive then what would be the problem?
Perhaps by being associated with the words we use more people would be more thoughtful about what they say.
But, as many subsequent babblers pointed out, anonymity is a privilege that is not shared equally.
Those marginalized by society, targeted by police (legally or not) or anybody who simply works in an environment where one's radical politics would be a liability, don't share that privilege.
There are many examples of discussion threads where using real names would have prevented productive conversation. And others raise the point that eliminiating anoymity begs the question. That is, what evidence is there that people posting under real names will be any less inclined to post racist or sexist material, to insult others, or even to post spam?
Another poster suggests that trolling and spamming are the price we pay for vibrant, diverse discussion and compares online comments to secret ballots:
I think the fact that pseudonyms are a norm on the Internet have contributed to its vibrancy. The more views exchanged, the better, even if you often have to put up with trollish opinions and often outright abuse. I think its up to the owners/operators of websites to set the tone and moderate as they see fit but to ask people to remove the cloak of anonymity is a step way to far and would effectively stifle vibrant discussion in most places.
Imagine if we didn't have secret ballots, participation in elections would plummet. Participation in online discussions would similarly suffer.
Finally, in a touching testimonial, long-time contributor aborman confirms why babble has no plans of removing online anonymity any time soon (although we have thought about it!):
If I were forced to post under my real name I would never have been able to participate in babble (not that I have in recent years, but still). It would have been impossible in the job I held to do so, and it might even be difficult now. At the time I had a semi-public job for a 'left-leaning think tank' and my public statements needed to be rooted in evidence and policy related to my area of expertise. There was zero room in public for me to explore the rest of the realm of political and progressive thought, and the anonymity of my handle allowed me to learn and grow in ways that would never have happened were I relegated to mere 'lurking' by a misguided 'real name' policy.
Case in point: When I first started posting on babble I considered myself a feminist, or at least a male who supported feminist goals. I still do, but through long and occasionally painful discussions on this forum - some locals will remember them - I know that my understanding of feminism expanded dramatically and in many ways I had not considered. It likely would not be hard to find an example of me saying something stupid as I learned the extent of my ignorance through the medium of discussion on this forum. It would be deeply unfair to take something I said 10 years ago out of context, in a heated discussion, and use it against me now (not that there was much, but I'm sure I must have said something stupid about something).
We never know what situation we might find ourselves in 5 years in the future. I stand by everything I said as a babbler over the past ten years, at least in the sense that I believed it to be true and fair when i wrote it. But my opinion in 2003 on many issues is not what it is in 2013. The sad truth of online conversation is that there is a permanent record of sorts. There are a million ways I can think of for some future opponent to dig up a partially formed, half completed thought I posted on babble in the heat of the moment ten years ago, and use it to discredit me or (worst case) arrest me.
There are many more articles and opinions at the link. What are your thoughts on online anonymity? Post them below -- or better yet, go to babble and post it there! (Under your real name...or not.)