The other day I posted a business-related article on my Facebook wall. Here are four of the first five comments, “where are you from,” “aka,” “princesse” and “UOOU!” Since Facebook requires that you use a real name when you sign up for their service, I can only assume this feedback is from real people. However, by the look of it, there is an obvious language or communications barrier between my online friends and me.
Like many digital enthusiasts, I'm getting used to a large percentage of nonsensical comments on things I share online. If it's not spam-like junk, it's often negative feedback and the occasional attack from an unhappy reader. If it's a positive comment from a person with a real-looking headshot, it's a good day for me in the webosphere. All of which leads me to believe – on bad days – that our online commenting systems are broken, forever flawed and possibly with no hope of improvement.
The folks over at Disqus, which provides a commenting platform to more than 400,000 websites (including CNN, Engadget, TIME), think they might have the answer (or at least a solution to improve the quality of comments). In a report released this past week the company concluded that people using pseudonyms are responsible for some of the highest quality comments. After reading that I did a hot-coffee spit-take (okay, not quite, but you get my drift). For years I've believed the opposite was true, convinced (until recently) that fictitious handles merely allow the trolls to dish out their venom without consequence.
What Disqus also found, while analyzing more than 500,000 comments, is that people using pseudonyms accounted for 61 per cent of comments, anonymous usernames 35 per cent, and real identity 4 per cent. Their conclusion? The average commenter using a pseudonym contributes 4.7 times more than commenters identifying with Facebook (presumably under their real name). And not just quantity, Disqus rated comments by number of likes and replies, and found that 61 per cent of pseudonym comments were positive in nature (as opposed to the 11 per cent that were flagged, marked as spam or deleted).
To be fair, it is in Disqus' best interest to continue to push its platform, which provides users with a variety of identity choices for leaving comments. That said, the report puts the Nymwars debate back in the spotlight as online communities look for the best way to increase interaction.
If you're not familiar with Nymwars, this term heated up last summer when Google enforced its real-name policy for its new social network. This move disappointed those people communicating in the Internet space who were better off hiding their real identities. For example, abuse victims, school teachers and LGBT people could have reason to want to conceal their real names. It is unfair to force these communities to put their safety or privacy at risk, just so Internet companies have more sellable personal data. In the months following the Google Plus debate I started to ease back on my opinion about pseudonyms, finally opening my eyes to their obvious necessity.
Disqus’s findings would suggest the commenting world we live is becoming less broken. As a test, I read through one of my recent – and more popular – comment streams in my column here. Of the 400-plus comments a few removed due to violating terms, a few voted up and more voted down. Oh, and let's not forget the not-so-muted personal attacks, like this one “Ask one of your adult supervisors to explain it to you, dear.” Some of them appear to be from “real people” and some are from pseudonyms, hard to differentiate the two in many cases. The ratio doesn’t look 60 per cent positive.
Clearly, just allowing pseudonyms isn’t enough to fix comments. Just over a year ago National Public Radio (NPR) made a bold move to give up managing its own online comments. Instead of spending time sifting throughout the good, bad, and ugly, they outsourced the moderation to Canadian-founded firm ICUC (which specializes in social media monitoring).
Sadly moderation alone can’t solve the problem either, as Poynter Institute's Damon Kiesow says in, “It's not such a toxic atmosphere by default. You just have to sweep the streets, make it a nice place to live.”
The reality for online communities is that whether you're an individual looking to present a neat and tidy professional profile online or a large company trying to clean up your digital feedback, each must have a commenting policy in place to determine what stays and what goes. I'm not talking censorship, but instead fair rules of engagement; for example, no profanity, no personal attacks, etc. Pseudonyms and anonymity are a necessity, but that needs to be paired with smart moderation to keep digital conversations compelling.