What is your solution for managing anonymous comments?

Websites may hold their nose as they continue to run mostly anonymous user comments, but with a few exceptions, no administrator wants to demand that everybody start using a real name. The real concern is a plunge in traffic. There’s a simple solution. Why not tab comment boards two ways: one for all posts, anonymous and signed, and a second limited to those who sign with their real names?

The first board would continue to be the free-for-all that exists on most boards, while the second could lead to alternative conversations that, while no less spirited, bring a civility that is sometimes missing on wide-open boards.  Whistleblowers could comment on the signed board by getting a pseudonym from the site’s administrators – a suggestion first made by Vin Crosbie on this site.  Or they could choose to be anonymous on the unsigned board. 

The two-tab approach could be easily implemented with e-publishing software  Users who choose to use their real names would, upon registration, elect to have their comments published on the second, signed board. Users who do not supply their real names could post only to the first board.

The net result would be comment boards that balance privacy, First Amendment rights and transparency – and just maybe add to the traffic.

Please use the comments below to tell OJR readers what approach you’ve taken on anonymous posting as you’ve built your online community.

What approach do you recommend? (If you are reading on the OJR front page, click “archive link” below to read and leave responses.)

Finally, check out OJR’s previous articles on discussion forum management. – Editor

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]


  1. This reminds me a bit of Slashdot’s moderation system, which allows readers to see comments rated at different levels. Now, here the “cut,” if you will, is anonymous/not, but there is the inherent problem in filtering responses to a thread — readers making reference to a previous response that other readers will not see because they are reading with a different filter. If there are too many such orphaned responses in the thread, it frustrates readers who no longer can follow the flow of the conversation.

    That said, I like the idea of empowering readers to control the flow of information that they receive, but I do want to remind publishers that orphaned responses is a usability issue with filtered discussion boards. Tom’s suggestion can eliminate this problem by treating the tabs as seperate boards, but that seems to me more of a problem, since both tabs would need to achieve that elusive critical mass to become a “must-read” online destination. It’s easier to get there if you don’t split your traffic.

  2. At Violinist.com, a niche site for violinists, we require everyone to register and comment under real names. We implemented that policy about five years ago, gradually allowing less and less room for pseudonyms and anonymous postings. Yes, the number of comments on our discussion board plunged for a time, but the quality of discourse improved immediately.

    Over time, people who were serious about the topic felt more safe talking on the board, knowing that others were less likely to attack their comments. Also, they came to understand that their thought-through comments weren’t likely to be surrounded by total garbage comments. The standard grew higher.

    Bloggers on our site have the option of allowing comments or not doing so; there is also much more accountability in the blog comments, when people feel they are talking human-to-human.

    Violinist.com is now populated with a lot of people who want to be heard, people who want to have a higher-quality dialogue, people who are willing to put their name forth. Those who don’t want to post under their name still lurk.

    I’d say that it improved the overall quality of our website considerably. If all you want from your discussion board is affirmation that lots of eyeballs are seeing your site and reacting, then sure, let anybody and everybody say any- and everything. But the value of this is very low.

  3. Ari Soglin says:

    For those who run sites that require people to post under real names, how do you enforce such a policy — especially if you have hundreds or thousands or registered users?

  4. > For those who run sites that require people
    > to post under real names, how do you enforce
    > such a policy — especially if you have
    > hundreds or thousands or registered users?

    (Ari, forgive me if what I’m about to write seems like I’m putting words into your mouth. That’s not my intent and I don’t see it as describing you.)

    Ari’s question is one I frequently encounter when consulting with news media companies. I’ve found that many who ask it often hold two unexamined presumptions.

    The first presumption is that a news organization can just adopt whatever online policies that non-media sites (such as Slashdot.com) use. Many news organization new-media executives hold this presumption despite also maintaining the contrary presumption that news organizations are granted special protections under the law. Most courts do consider news organizations different than merely businesses. Though courts have ruled that Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL have been ‘common carriers’ who businesses do not employ or need editors and, much like telephone companies, cannot be held legally liable for any slanderous or libelous comments users might make through them, news organizations might have a very hard time making the same claim. Fortunately, there hasn’t yet been a test case about this; yet most of the libel lawyers I’ve spoken with believe that the courts are more likely to treat news organizations’ reader comment sites the same way the courts treat newspapers’ letters-to-the-editor – seeing no difference whether a comment is printed or online.

    The second presumption is that online automatically permits news media companies to do much more with much less staff or costs than in print. For example, a newspaper with tens of thousands of circulation printed by a press crew of a dozen might online with a staff of one or two be read by hundreds of thousands of people. Although this presumption might be true regarding many attributes, it’s not true about every attribute of online publishing. Some attributes of online can be more expensive to operate than the printed equivalents. A newspaper whose website attracts thousands of comments daily may naturally need more staff editing those comments than its printed edition’s Op-Ed page needs to edit the probably dozens of postal letters-to-the-editor received each day.

    Publishers aren’t likely to hire magnitudes more editors just because their websites get magnitudes more users’ comments than do print or broadast. Fortunately, legally sound policies aided by registration technology can reduce that burden. News sites that require identification and implement such systems take that step.

    You own your own words. Each reader owns his own, too. Just as no one should be allowed to steal what someone else owns, no owner should be permitted to escape responsibility when what he owns does damage.

  5. Another presumption worth considering is that registration necessarily results in a higher percentage of quality posts. While intuition might lead us to believe so, the data (at least in our case) proved otherwise. At Topix we ran experiments with both registration-required and anonymous models. When we removed the registration we were not surprised to see the number of posts sky-rocket, but were amazed that the overall ratio of bad posts to good remained remarkably consistent (around 12% killed)

    In simple terms, we attribute the consistency to something we posted on our blog many moons ago — the “Ni-chan” paradox. We know that forum trolls are dogged and persistent. No registration gate in the world will keep them out of a reasonably open, scaled-solution. Conversely, your average reader can’t be bothered to jump through the hoops of registering for yet another site. So, you create a situation where the bad posters are challenged to defeat the system –spending all day trying — while the good posters are given obstacles. Removing the registration ensures not only a much higher absolute post volume, but allows a greater number of good posts to come through.

    Granted, Topix is processing nearly 70,000 posts every day, so we obviously employ some reasonably sophisticated moderation algorithms that would not otherwise be available to smaller niche sites, such as violinst.com. I would probably not suggest removing registration in a situation where the site mods wish to keep the audience highly-focused and controlled.

    The two-tab approach is novel, and deserves consideration. When you have a comment model (ala the BBC) where the commenting is one-way, this would probably work brilliantly. But to Robert’s point, it’s a tricky proposition to preserve conversation when you begin having anonymous and registered users engaged in dialog. Navigating the orphaned posts would soon grow tedious, I imagine.

  6. That anecdotal example is interesting, Blake. It however does run counter to a body of research done on the subject (notably research about ‘identity and multiplicity’ by MIT Professor of Sociology of Science Sherry Turkle, who’s also a licensed clinical psychologist).

    Registration might not per se necessarily results in a higher percentage of quality posts, but the data about getting high quality posts when posters are identifiable is more than just a presumption.

    By the way, I disagree with the two-tab idea that Tom mentions. If news sites are more concerned about higher traffic than quality postings, let them pour verbal gasoline on the flame wars online. I however think that people can post provocatively enough without absolutely everyone having to be anonymous.

  7. Tom– I remember articulating such an idea to the ONA list… but I appreciate your echoing it further here. The only thing I added was that a publisher can get the registration information directly from paying subscribers. (I also sent a variation of the two-tab idea to the New Republic last September.

    I’d guess that the closer an online community is to a community of practice (this one, for example), the more people will prefer real names & registration. People *could* subscribe to OJR (as many “subscribe” to ONA).

    It is obvious that the trade/niche press are communities of practice. The question is whether local newspapers are. Would I pay money to join the reader community of either the Boston Phoenix or the Boston Globe? Possibly. For the local newspapers to stay relevant, they are going to have to prove themselves as more binding communities than the news aggregators (as excellent a service as they provide– thank you Blake and Topix).

    I’ll add that more research can be done– I think ONA (or, better yet, OPA) could survey its member publishers, and find out what strategies they use, and what results they get.

  8. Jon gets to the critical point: there is a difference between a community and a discussion board. Posting the code to implement the latter does not, by itself, create the former.

    A discussion board needs a thoughtful leader who tries things that will engage potential members of the community at their appropriate levels of comfort and expertise. So, the ultimate methods that the leader employs will depend upon the unique mix of people within that community. If not, then what you have is simply a discussion board, a convenient place for graffiti from whoever drives by. Maybe that graffiti might be interesting to someone. Maybe not.

  9. Frankly, I moderate all comments. I know it subjects me to liability, but there’s so much garbage that gets submitted that I feel it would be irresposible to allow it all to be published. My politics site exists to help advance the conversation, not allow it to degrade into a partisan name-calling session that’s full of lies and half-truths.

    I realize that means fewer comments, but I don’t want the comments that aren’t appropriate.

  10. Just curious, Heath. What do you consider inappropriate, and what percentage of submitted comments turn out to be inappropriate, by your standard?

  11. Ari Soglin says:

    At Contra Costa Times, we implemented mandatory registration (valid email address, not real names) for our discussion boards nearly a year ago. Our experience — anecdotally, no data — was that the number of clearly inappropriate posts (obscenities, blatant racism) dropped. Though perhaps not in the Oakland Raiders forum. :)

    We went to mandatory registration in response to reader complaints. It makes sense to me that registration would not stop the determined people, who will register and fire off their diatribes. But I believe that many of the inappropriate posts come in the heat of the moment from readers who, when forced to register or log in, will pause and think twice about what they’re posting.

  12. I have a posted comments policy (http://haussamen2.blogspot.com/2007/02/policies.html) that is a set of guidelines for people. I’d guess that about 40 percent of comments don’t get published. After I posted the policy and began screening comments, people learned quickly to stop cussing and trying to get lies posted as fact… And I do allow them to remain anonymous, which is, I think, what most people who want to comment care about. I just require that they meet some other guidelines.

    I’d appreciate any feedback on the guidelines.

  13. I agree absolutely.Even many are following it.All blogs posted are not displayed normally if 1)they are not worth it.The solution offered for managing anonymous comments is a well deserved post.

  14. We are looking at doing some kind of two-tiered system. For readers using real names they can post immediately without moderation. For anonymous users, we are looking at either moderating the comments only once a day (and under much stricter guidelines than our current anonymous comments) or directing them to a separate forum section where they can post freely, but not connected directly to the story.

    But I also have the same question as Ari: what methods are there to determine real identities?

  15. At times I feel some bloggers due to certain reasons and complusions give comments which is well deserved ,but they want to remain anonymous.If the comment is that worth,then assurance should follow to assure them that their name and identity will be kept anonymous.If they are convinced,then real output will follow.

  16. Although Tom Grubisich will most likely respond that YourHub.com is made up entirely of PR pros and politicians, we actually do have a few registered users posting stories and comments.

    More than 32,000 in Denver alone to be exact. While I am certain that people can beat the system, we take a LTE approach to our users. Our registration asks for a user’s real name, address and phone number.

    When a story is chosen to be printed in one of our 18 print sections we verify authorship by using the old fashioned phone. We also have a whole host of bloggers and regular users who help police the site and let us know when something smells fishy. When we find a user on the site using what we believe to be a false name we attempt to contact them and inform them we are not an anonymous site. They can choose to participate using their real name or delete their profile.

    We also allow people who post on our site to attend our staff meetings and drop in to our offices whenever they desire. Our Web hosts also post their smiling faces on the front of every hub and are real live breathing people available by phone or email. They’ll even come out to someone’s house to teach them how to use the site. This has helped create ownership by the community and eliminated some of the anonymous, faceless feel of some sites.

    I know that we lose many people who would otherwise post by making users stand behind their real name, but the policy has made the site more friendly and allows real community members to have a real voice.

    As I said before, could someone beat our system and post using a false name? Absolutely, but it happens a lot less than you would think.

    When you build a site where everyone is using their real name and belongs to the community you weed out the childish and profane comments that proliferate some sites.

    That might mean our site suffers traffic-wise and isn’t the darling of self-proclaimed community journalism experts.

    So be it.