To the anonymous commenters of Howard County

3 minute read

Coming from the world of open source and Internet security to dabble in the waters of Howard County affairs, I was surprised by the predominance of anonymous comments on local HoCo blogs. I can only conclude that some local bloggers aren’t aware of why allowing anonymous comments is bad, that some commenters don’t know the value of using a consistent identity (fake or real), or that some commenters are willfully disrespectful of online social norms around using a consistent identifier (fake or real). This post is a primer for the first two groups, and a warning to the third.

First, some basics: There are three ways you can post something online:

  • under your real name

  • under a fake name unique to you and used consistently (pseudonym or nym)

  • under no name at all (anonymously)

Note that in many online contexts there is no real difference between the first two cases, since it’s often impractical or unnecessary to verify that a real-world identity actually exists and is associated with a specific person posting online. So in practice we can just assume that everyone commenting is using a pseudonym, with the only requirement being that they always use the same pseudonym when commenting in a particular context.

The problem with anonymous commenters is not that such people are unwilling to have comments associated with their real-life identity. Rather the problem is that they are unwilling to have comments they make today be associated with comments they’ve made in the past or might make in the future. If people use stable pseudonyms then you can track their comments over time and evaluate whether someone is making a consistent argument or displaying an overall grasp of a particular subject area.

However with anonymous commenting a person can come into a forum and post anything they wish (no matter how outrageous or ill-informed), go away, and then come back tomorrow and do the exact same thing, with no effect on their online reputation. Naturally enough, doing this is most attractive to people who want to make negative or ill-informed comments without fear of being called on it, and so a forum dominated by anonymous commenters runs the risk of degrading into a morass of personal attacks and pointless rants.

My suggestion is this: If you don’t want to use your real name then you should just make up a fake name and use that. (Just make sure it’s distinctive enough that no one else is likely to use it.) You can also put in a fake email address when it’s requested by comment forms; the blog software I use doesn’t check the address, so it doesn’t even need to be a working address. (But again, if you use a fake address please make it the same fake address each time.) That way I can track your comments over time (whether for a single post or across multiple posts), politely address you by your (possibly fake) name, and give you props where appropriate.

If you’re not willing to adopt a persistent distinctive pseudonym, and insist on putting in “anonymous” (or some variant thereof) when submitting a comment, then quite frankly I have no desire to have your comments in my comments section, and I’ll feel no compunction about deleting your comments when I notice them after the fact. (I don’t hold up comments for moderation, to make it easier for people to add comments.) Note that if I do delete an anonymous comment I’ll announce that, so you’ll know it occurred and can re-submit the comment under a proper pseudonym.

Thanks for your cooperation in this matter, and happy commenting.