Ariana Huffington says she will no longer allow readers to comment anonymously on the Huffington Post. If she means it, if she can resist the threats of reader rebellion and decreased traffic, I applaud her.
When I started my blog at the Houston Chronicle in 2005, I decided I wouldn’t approve anonymous comments. My rationale was that when readers wrote to the paper, we verified their identity before publishing their comments. What’s more, whether online or in print, I was putting my name — not to mention my picture — by everything I wrote. Was it too much to ask that readers, too, stand behind their words?
I was told that it was. If I required everyone to put their name to comments, I wouldn’t get any, and as a result, my traffic numbers would languish. New to the whole blogging experience, I acquiesced. Almost immediately, I regretted it, and I never stopped.
For the next eight years, my blog was inundated with inane, ignorant and hateful comments, all hurled from behind the anonymity of screen names. Sometimes these were directed at me and sometimes they were directed at other readers, some of whom themselves were commenting anonymously.
Of course, as a blogger, having lots of comments helps boost your visibility, but I often found myself wondering why it mattered. If a post degenerated into an exchange of name-calling between two people who lacked the integrity to use their real names, did it really matter?
Not everyone who writes blog comments does so anonymously, of course. I found that the most rational comments, those that offered insights or advanced the discussion came from people using real names. This is understandable, since their comments reflected on them.
Anonymity doesn’t just breed irresponsibility, it also breeds deceit. During the trial of Enron leaders Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, I found anonymous comments posted to my blog from a server used by the law firm representing Skilling. Almost immediately, readers and some of the Chronicle’s own web team questioned whether I should have “outed” Skilling’s lawyers. As a result, my access to the web addresses of commenters was blocked, thereby ensuring that we protected the anonymity of those we knew were attempting to deceive other readers.
In fact, Skilling’s lawyers later argued he deserved a new trial because of media attention, specifically citing my blog while ignoring their own active, if anonymous, participation in this alleged media circus.
The Internet remains a world of make believe, even as it becomes a more vital part of our lives. Yet too much of what passes for dialog on the Internet is little more than a shouting match between cowards and liars.
The Huffington Post has enough influence, enough digital street cred, that its policy change could start a precedent. At the very least, it may help establish a higher standard to which other sites can aspire.
Anonymous comments have become the way of the Internet, but there is a better way to encourage thoughtful dialog. We are judged by our words. Rather than offering a shield to trolls, we should expect people to stand behind what they write. It’s not too much to ask. The “discussion” that is lost, in most cases, won’t be missed.