Facebook Comments: Not the End of Anonymity, Just a Blow for Civility

An online firestorm has erupted over popular blog TechCrunch's adoption of the Facebook Comments plug-in. TechCrunch (which like DailyFinance is owned by AOL) decided to start using the Facebook system in part to control the volume of virulent, useless and nasty comments on its site, which had become a favorite playground for the worst sort of online trolls.

Now, users who want to comment must log in with a Facebook account, something that few trolls are willing to do because Facebook accounts are easily connected to real people and have a very low degree of anonymity.

Critics -- and even TechCrunch's own writers -- have noted that the once vibrant comments sections have become perhaps too civilized, and there has been a drop in comment volume of roughly 50%. In a response of sorts to TechCrunch's move, entrepreneur and techie Steve Cheney penned a widely read post inveighing against the social network titled How Facebook is Killing Your Authenticity.

A Long Way from Thomas Paine

As for me, I'm all too happy to see this sort of transparency come to the Wild Wild Web. I'll cry only crocodile tears for the trolls who'll truly miss the ability to graphically profane the mothers of any poor sap who makes a moderately genuine and unsnarky comment on TechCrunch or other prominent blogs.

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Let's be clear. Anonymity is essential online, just as it is offline. The history of impactful anonymous political commentary, such as Thomas Paine's Common Sense, is long and robust. Likewise, anonymous reviews and pen names have held a storied place in literature and journalism. But what has evolved over the past decade on the Web is a level of anonymity that has allowed the Dark Side to prevail.

Anonymous memberships on review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor have made it far too easy to game those systems, which in turn casts doubt on the quality of their reviews (a subject I've written about for DailyFinance before). Anonymous reviews on Amazon (AMZN) have allowed companies to manipulate the product-ranking system by paying a pittance for people to write and post positive reviews.

And anonymous commenting sections on sites such as TechCrunch cater to the most base human instincts -- after all, what kind of person posts flippant, insulting reviews while hiding behind a false identity? A person who would rather not have his mother read what he (or she) is writing on TechCrunch, most likely.

Far From Perfect

Fundamentally, anonymity makes it easy for people to ignore the principles of the Golden Rule, and in so doing, it breaks powerful unspoken social covenants that dictate appropriate behavior. That's why I welcome the rise of log-in systems and commenting modules that force people to reveal their identities. People who want to keep their names secret but still have a voice can easily do so. Google's (GOOG) Blogger service, for example, makes no effort to force people to reveal their actual names.

To be sure, Facebook commenting is far from perfect. Robert X. Cringely points out, correctly, that users who sign up for Facebook Comments risk posting all their comments to their own Facebook wall, and could display their friends' pictures on other sites without realizing it. But this is largely besides the point, and it's hardly, as Cringely suggests, the "Death of Online Anonymity."

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