Matthew C. Nisbet put up a post today titled The Right Room for a Dialogue: New Policy on Anonymous Comments. In it, he writes:
I've long questioned the value of anonymous blogging or commenting. Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity. And with a rare few exceptions, if you can't participate in a dialogue about issues without using your full name and true identity, then what you have to say is probably not that valuable.
These long standing thoughts were called to mind again after reading a post by Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth. Quoting as the subject to his post a line from Monty Python "is this the right room for an argument?," Revkin writes:
Michael Palin asked that question nearly 40 years ago on Monty Python's Flying Circus, and it's as germane as ever in considering the merits and drawbacks to blogging, and particularly the comment strings following posts. Often, the commentary here and elsewhere threatens to devolve into extended volleys of retorts, particularly when anonymous contributors are involved, some of whom are so relentless that their ideological foes sometimes allege they must be getting paid to do what they're doing.
Revkin goes on to link to a column by Columbus Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison who discusses the negative impact of anonymous commenters on the newspaper's Web site. As Marrison observes of people who email the Dispatch or leave comments at stories: "Is it a coincidence that all of those civil people are reachable (and somewhat accountable) through a return e-mail?"
Matt then notes that he'll be taking steps on his blog to end anonymous commenting.
Of course, it's Matt's prerogative to establish whatever sort of ground rules for commenting on his blog that he likes. However, the title of his post suggests that his aim, in moving to block anonymous commenting (and presumably pseudonymous commenting, although it's not made explicit in the post) is to foster dialogue.
Regular readers of this blog also know that I welcome pseudonymous (and even anonymous) commenters, and that I used to blog under a pseudonym myself. So I've thought a bit about issues connected to pseudonymity and why one might want to blog with a pseudonym. And, I'd put my commenters up against those of any other blog as far as their willingness to engage in serious dialogues here about issues that matter to them a lot.
All of which is to say, I'm not on board with Matt's premise that anonymous or pseudonymous engagement begets more incivility or undercuts the conditions for dialogue. Maybe under certain conditions it could (although not all conditions -- comment threads here provide a counterexample to the universal generalization), but I'd like to see either empirical evidence or a persuasive argument to support the claim before I buy it.
But, in the interests of dialogue, I'm open to considering specific ways allowing or blocking anonymity might foster or undercut dialogue.
Once again, let me offer for your consideration the grid I encountered in the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at San Jose State University, adapted from material from the Public Conversations Project, which compares characteristics of dialogues and arguments:
|In an argument, we ...||In a dialogue, we ...|
|Try to win.||Try to understand.|
|Compete for speaking time.||Value listening.|
|Speak for others.||Speak from personal experience.|
|Create a potentially threatening and uncomfortable environment.||Create an atmosphere of safety.|
|Take sides with others.||Discover differences even among those with whom we agree.|
|Polarize ourselves from those with whom we disagree.||Discover shared concerns between ourselves and others.|
|Feel unswerving commitment to a point of view.||Discover our uncertainties as well as deeply help beliefs.|
|Ask questions to make a point or put the other person down.||Ask questions out of true curiosity and the desire to know more.|
|Make predictable statements.||Discover significant new things.|
|Make simplistic statements.||Explore the complexity of the issues being discussed.|
And, I'm going to ask you, my valued readers and commenters, to tell me which of these characteristics, aims, or activities you think are influenced by the use of real names, screen names, or anonymity in online interactions. Have at it in the comments (which, as always, will await my approval, but with luck not for an intolerably long time interval).
In the meantime, about that dialogue I'll be a part of next week ...
It's a face to face panel discussion about the science and animal-based research, with a moderator (David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times) and an audience of members of the UCLA community who will be able to ask questions (in writing, then sifted through and put to the panelists by the moderator). All of the panelists are using their full names and true identities. But it's not at all clear that this will guarantee either civility or successful dialogue.
In fact, there are some who seem to be using the fact that our full names and true identities are public to try to scuttle the dialogue before it has happened or scare us off from taking part in it. My address, phone and fax number, and photo have been posted on a website (whose owner uses her full name and true identity) that describes me as a "mutilation activist" and describes two of the other panelists as "SICK BASTARDS who make their livings mutilating and killing innocent animals and then promoting themselves and their atrocities". (One of those panelists has also been dealing with demonstrations at his home.)
Personally, I'm not feeling like this does much to "create an atmosphere of safety". Rather, it's making the environment around the event "potentially threatening and uncomfortable".
It's worth noting that Dr. Ray Greek, one of the panelists on "the other side" of the dialogue has responded strongly to efforts to derail the dialogue, which gives me hope for dialogue once we're safely inside the room.
My point in raising this is to suggest that use of real names may expose people in ways that dissuade them from being part of public conversation, and that some people using real names are more interested in shutting down dialogue than participating in it. There may be different factors involved in setting up and maintaining an online space for dialogue, but any kind of dialogue takes work.
I hope Matt is successful at setting up conditions at his blog that support the kinds of dialogue he's hoping to have there. But I'm dubious that a shift to real names only will be sufficient for that.