Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Comments Policy Silliness

I noticed that there seems to be some well-intentioned silliness in R. Scott Clark's new blog commenting policy (link to his discussion of his policy). The new policy requires those commenting to provide their real names, so as to take responsibility for their comments.

Before I get to the silliness, let me acknowledge that there are small number of vocal folks who abuse what they perceive to be the web's anonymity. That is to say, there are a number of folks who post anonymously to harass, annoy, inflame, or otherwise act as trolls. This is irritating and it leads to blog-owners requiring some additional barriers to commenting to deter these trolls.

Nevertheless, imposing a policy that says those commenting must provide their real names fails to make people responsible for their comments. First, the current policy only requires that a part of the person's name be provided. There's no requirement that the whole name be provided. Unless someone has a rather unusual (for the blogosphere) first name (yes, Thabiti, I'm thinking of you) then even using a real name wouldn't help. Same, though perhaps a little less so, for family names. Even when we combine first and last names, there are still many common combinations. Adding a middle initial or perhaps a full middle name would be helpful in further reducing the number of possible people a particular might refer to.

Such measures, however, fail to provide full responsibility for two reasons. First, as the tax folks know, there are plenty of cases of people with identical names. Second, even if your social security number of passport number were provided (we have to keep the blogosphere international, after all), simply identifying a person's name doesn't tell you much that permits you to hold that person responsible. We would also need an address, some sort of physical description (several people can live at the same address), and for church discipline purposes, membership information.

Furthermore, in the U.S. and South Africa, as well as some other places, gun ownership is rather common. Thus, if we really want to keep folks who comment on blogs responsible, we need some ability to get to them. Thus, they would need to be required to post some sort of bond with a neutral third party (such as a bank), that the blog owner could seize if the blog commenter violated the bounds of proper behaviour - at least as an initial form of responsibility. Hostage giving by blog commenters would be another way: who is going to write mindnumbing screeds in your comment boxes if you have their firstborn child?

And, of course, not only is the mechanism proposed by my dear brother in Christ, R. Scott Clark, not enough to ensure responsibility, it is a way that's easily foiled. I would not be shocked if Clark started to see a lot of the John Smiths and Jane Does of the Internet start commenting (in surprising volume) on his blog.

In fact, the only people who Clark's policy will adversely affect are those morally upright folks who don't want to reveal their real names. They are the only ones who will not intentionally violate Clark's policy (some may unintentionally violate it, based on not carefully reading the policy, or not noticing that the policy exists), while the unscrupulous will easily beat his safeguard.

When pseudonymous comments are outlawed, only outlaws will comment pseudonymously.


Turretinfan said...

Or he could just delete trollish comments. That would also work.

louis said...

Don't discount the psychological impact of having to post your real name. It's not all about external accountability. Besides, there is accountability through those who know you. That is, your friends, family, and co-workers will know what you are posting. It doesn't have to be the blog owner who tracks you down.

Turretinfan said...

Yes, though as I noted, only the ethical will be affected.

Craig French said...

A good policy would be one requiring a valid email address...that way the blog owner may contact the one making comments.

Turretinfan said...

That one makes sense.

P.D. Nelson said...

Unless you give an email address that is meant for spam ( I have one on yahoo that I use all the time for those sites that require my email). Then the critic may post all he wants with no care as to the follow up by the blog host.

word verification: glanar

Turretinfan said...

Yes, indeed. One can enhance the "valid email address" feature by requiring it to be a monitored e-mail address (by forcing the commenter to respond to an email in order to upload their comment).

Craig French said...

I know the Baylys tend to send emails to accounts (if there is a reason to)...if they bounce back, or are ignored, they point this out on the blog.

Turretinfan said...

Interesting ... and yet they claim to be out of their minds ... :)

R. Scott Clark said...

I have a day job so I try not to spend too much time fussing about comments. If people are abusive or consistently heterodox, I ban them. If they use a bogus email address, and I see it, then I delete the comment.

I have to take public responsibility for my public comments. I don't see why it's silly to require that of commenters.

Turretinfan said...

"I have a day job so I try not to spend too much time fussing about comments."

Seems like good stewardship of your time.

"If people are abusive or consistently heterodox, I ban them. If they use a bogus email address, and I see it, then I delete the comment."

That seems like a reasonable course of action.

"I have to take public responsibility for my public comments."

You certainly choose to do so. I suspect you could choose to use a pseudonym or post anonymously, as many others have. Perhaps your employer at your day job prohibits that - I'm not sure.

"I don't see why it's silly to require that of commenters."

In point of fact, you hold commenters to a lower standard than you hold yourself. Your work, church, etc. information is all out there, and you are only requiring a name from them. You are much more accountable for your comments than they are, on a variety of levels. And it is your blog, and if you want to require it, that's your prerogative.

However, unethical trolls will still post under a false name, and the main group of people deterred are those who are ethical and have some reason (better known to themselves than you) for not using their real name.

As a means of accomplishing the end of ensuring accountability, it won't work. For that end it is "silly," (unless you think that too strong a term) though it is not necessarily "silly" for you to desire that those commenting on your blog be as transparent as you are about their identities.

- TurretinFan

James Swan said...

I've been using the phony name James Swan for years.

Brandon said...

I think a common problem in this context is that people confuse 'anonymity' with 'pseudonymity'; they are very different, and can't be lumped together. It makes sense in any context where comments are important to reject anonymous commenting, anyway; it leads to perpetual confusion about who is talking. But pseudonymity allows for a wide range of different cases; in some cases the pseudonymous individual has built a reputation online that will lead them to be very careful with regard to what they do under their pseudonym. It's quite common in the blogosphere; the pseudonym effectively functions as a pen name in an online context.

I think there are lots of reasons why it could be reasonable (under some conditions) to have a no-obvious-pseudonym policy; that it makes people take responsibility for their comments is not, I think, one of them. As you say, the responsible people already do, regardless of how they sign in; the irresponsible people never will, no matter what one does. Although hostage-taking might indeed work.

The Squirrel said...

But... my name is Squirrel! Really! I mean, my wife calls me Squirrel... what more do you want?


xyz said...

Well, it is an inconvenience for untehical people. So while trolls and flamemrs can easily register an OpenID etc, that still takes time, and most of them would start to give up after you start banning 3 of their consecutive OpenIDs.

If absolutley no commenting policy is followed, it is too simple to just post under "Anonymous" or some other fake name with no form of validation required. Like what I am doing now with this comment.

[Btw, my online personna is puritanreformed]

fgh said...

or this

abc said...

So as I have said, even though commenting policies cannot stop dedicated trolls and flammers, it will strongly discourage them especially after their comments start disappearing, or rather, not appearing.

Anonymous said...

An unspoken element in Clark's particular case is he is not concerned about trolls, he just deletes those comments, he is concerned about criticism. He writes and says many things that cause him to get stung pretty good in response. He doesn't like it, so his response is to demand they use their real name. Like, "Come out of the darkness, punk, if you're going to criticize me..."

Clark wants to - needs to - chill legitimate criticism of some of his strange and/or doctrinally juvenile views such a his famous-by-constant-self-reference QIRE, or his default-deism, or just his general embarrassment with anything regarding regeneration or the Holy Spirit working in people's lives.

Turretinfan said...


I do hope you are mistaken. Clark's policy would seem to have that effect, whether or not he intends it.


Coram Deo said...

Scott's "new policy" was the reason I stopped commenting at Heidelblog.

I still read there, but it's much less engaging knowing that I'm banned from any form of interaction with the subject or combox participants.

This being said, I'm not sure that "silly" is the word I would have selected, TF.

Maybe "unfortunate", or "myopic", or even perhaps "infantile", but not necessarily silly.

Ironically enough, the Anonymous commenter above hits close to home, I believe, with his assessment of the underlying reason for Scott's decision.

Of course it's always dangerous to impute motives to others, but if one has spent any amount of time in the combox at Heidelblog...well...let's just say the theory doesn't stretch the bounds of credulity.

In Christ,