Why “real-name” commenting doesn’t work

Online anonymity is close to my heart.  I’m no HuffPo fan, but when I saw the headline Huffington: Trolls uglier than ever, so we’re cutting off anonymous comments, I had to click through. 

I found what I suspected: HuffPo is tired of the barroom brawls that online forums can be.  They’re blaming anonymity, and don’t “want to risk losing its robust culture of reader dialogue.”  As a result, commenting at HuffPo will soon require real names. They’re not the only media outlet to try this or discuss this

HufffPo wants to eradicate trolls by making their commenters use their names and therefore force everyone to speak nicely.  Huffington actually supported this upcoming policy change with “Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and not hiding behind anonymity.”

HuffPo is blaming anonymity for their troll troubles, but they’re misdiagnosing the actual cause. Their comment cesspool is the direct result of their misunderstanding of internet culture and their place within it. 

If they actually implement this change, HuffPo’s “robust culture of reader dialogue” is going to change dramatically. They simply won’t meet their goal of the same, but nicer.  Here’s why:

  1. Real Name policies are simply unenforceable. Show me a site that requires a “Real Name,” and I’ll introduce you to Riot.Jane or another online persona.  Generating a burner web mail account and online persona are not a challenge to a determined troll.  It’s also not a challenge to a non-troll like me who simply doesn’t want prospective hiring managers or HR departments Googling me and finding out non-job-related opinions.  Yes, they’re not allowed to use that sort of thing against me in a hiring decision, but I’d never know if it was done in order to bring the law into play.  There’s more than one reason I blog pseudonymously, but that’s the primary reason.
  2. Real Name policies are an extremely poor substitute for quality moderation, moderators, and moderation policies. Quality effective comment moderation involves more than searching for curse words or wielding the almighty [Delete] key.  Media presences open comment forums ostensibly to have a conversation with their readers but then don’t hold up their end of the conversation!  Moderators need their own forum-active personas, and they need to be willing and authorized to implement clear and productive moderation policies that are both publicly posted and extend beyond the [Delete] key.  Moderators should be speaking up, calling out trolls, redirecting the conversation when needed, and filling in the conversation holes that trolls exploit.  When the [Delete] key must be invoked, they need to explain why it was invoked; nothing inflames trolls like apparently capricious persecution. Stop slacking here!
  3. Early commenters set the tone of a conversation. Once a negative tone has been set, it’s well-nigh impossible to redirect a conversation.  Once your comment forums have devolved into a cesspool, don’t even try to recover them.  Close them.  Post-mortem what went wrong.  Develop a moderation policy to address what went wrong (consider reaching out to other organizations with the kind of comment forums you’d like to have and asking them how they accomplish it).  Re-train or replace your moderators and give them the authority to accomplish #2 above.  Try opening up comments again.  See how things go.  Lather, rinse, repeat until you get it right.

Somehow, The Economist has a robust non-trolled comments section that doesn’t require real names.  People disagree there constantly, but they are troll-free.  How do they do it?  Quality moderation.  Someone at HuffPo really should call them and ask how they’re doing it or find out what consultant they used.  Every corporate site should look to The Economist for the comment forum Gold Standard.

Online anonymity has important social benefits.  As a culture, we will pay a price for eradicating it. 

Tell me what you think in the comments? I’d like to hear and discuss.


Middle-aged, life-long Texan with a substantial chip on her shoulder.

Posted in culture, Libertarian, technology
3 comments on “Why “real-name” commenting doesn’t work
  1. Frank Hanzel says:

    An example of how it would be enforced would be web sites in China, Japan, Korean, and other asian countries where the user must register with the name and government ID number. Google China would require a new user to supply both their name and government ID number before being on the service. Facebook, Google, MSN, etc., could just now require all US accounts provide their SSI number for enrollment or even say, announce, all US users have 90 to provide the information or the account is suspended until it is provided.

    • Riot.Jane says:

      The topic at hand was private companies battling trolls in their comment forums, a specific misguided attempt to resolve same, and the solutions that make most sense to me.

      While there’s something to be said abt how a country could enforce a “real name” policy, why, what’s bad abt such a thing, and how to get around such things, this was not that post 😉

  2. Sheogorath says:

    “Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying, even if they are hiding behind anonymity.”

    FTFY, HuffPo.

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