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Thoughts On Engadget, Anonymity and Community

This is written in response to a post Paolo Mottola made on FlipTheMedia: Online Media Democracy Is Still Under Construction, or Why Engadget Had To Flip The Switch On Comments

Thanks for the food for thought, Paolo, but I disagree. What follows is a contrarian view. ;-)

(1) Several people commented, post-suspension, that Engadget allowed anonymous comments. I don’t know if that was true, but the way the Engadget FAQ currently reads (“We need your email address so you can create a profile in our system and become a member of our community”), it appears that these were valid criticisms of Engadget’s management system.

This one thing — allowing anonymous comments — probably contributed more to uncivil behavior than scale. Scale, by itself, is not a problem. Behavior that has no consequences? That’s a problem.

Engadget Screen Grab, 4 Feb 2010, 6.30 pm Pacific

(2) Even now, although you’re supposed to need to login or create an account before commenting, two of the four people commenting on the first post (about Deutsch Telecom) are unverified. This is not the way to maintain civility, because the person is for all intents and purposes, anonymous. Anonymity = behavior without consequences.

What does “unverified” mean? From the FAQ: You have “left a comment without having first set a username.”

What? Why would the system let you do that? I mean, you just told us that you have to “create a profile” in order to comment.

“This is most likely because you were an Engadget commenter on the old system, and you have not logged out or cleared your cookies since the new system was implemented. To select a username, simply log out of the site and log back in — the system will then ask you to select a username.”

Cookies, as we all know, have expiration dates. Why is Engadget using the same cookies? Why didn’t Engadget ask its dev team to force a log-off?

(3) Finally, comments are not on by default at the moment. I just went to Engadget (note, I am not a regular reader) and clicked “discuss” on the top story. I was momentarily confused, as there was no comment box and the message I saw began … “Comments are currently turned off.” I did a double take and then realized that … “You can enable them by clicking “on” above.”. Where the heck is “on”? My eye did a scan, scan, scan – oh, there it is.

I have no idea why Engadget has implemented this speed bump when it is allowing people to post anonymously (at least in the eyes of the world). Seems very odd.

In sum, I disagree that the problem Engadget faced with uncivil behavior lies solely at the feet of the “community.” IMO, Engadget did not have a community, because anonymity is antithetical to community. A community “policies itself” (see Slashdot, for example, or Newsvine*) but how do you exert peer pressure on anonymous accounts? You can’t.

* Added after reading Suzi’s comment

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

2 replies on “Thoughts On Engadget, Anonymity and Community”

Thanks, Suzi. You touch on a good point that I left out : moderation. I sorta alluded to it with the community policing itself bit, but that’s a big sorta.

Howard Debs and I were talking about moderation earlier this week in a Twitter chat: he comes down on the side of “approve” first and, generally, I come down on the side of “reject if needed.”

I’ve been listmom on mailing lists and I’ve moderated web boards. I know I’m not perfect – heck, I’ve probably made every moderation mistake that it’s possible to make. It’s really really important to honor community norms — and in these examples, I had administrative rights over a community. I don’t think “community” is engadget’s number one goal – it’s a publication. It wants a “community” so that it has readers — it’s readers don’t create the content (think Slashdot).

With politics, anyway, I firmly believe that allowing anonymous comments is a recipe for disaster. Yes, some people need to post under a pseudonym — but that’s not “anonymous” — it’s a name, with a verified email address. I firmly believe there needs to be a “reward” built in for using your own name (think Amazon’s “real name”) or a way for the community to provide feedback about comment quality (see Slashdot for old school and Newsvine for newer school).

I stick by my belief that Engadget brought much of this controversy (and pain) on itself. (Not that you were arguing with me!)

Hi Kathy,

Comments have such thorniness to them. Last night, a techie writer (for places like Gizmodo, Boing Boing, etc.) and a coworker and I were having a discussion about Engadget’s (original) turning off of the comments. He said, “I think the same 1,000 people just troll the Internet, commenting on everything and hating it.” He was sort of joking, but I think it’s right; *unmoderated* anonymous commenting, especially, encourages trolls. I like the comments policy of Shapely Prose (which is up top right now), where the moderators set a firm line and boot those who don’t toe it (after a warning or two), but I understand how very, very much work that is. (And at that, some of the commenters, and for that matter four of the moderators, are anonymous, but very, very policed.)

I do think you’re right about anonymity being antithetical, usually, to community. I’ve watched some extremely unmoderated comment threads on Slog turn idiotic, but then the staff of The Stranger does things like inviting frequent, and frequently hostile, commenters to write blog posts for Slog from time to time. I love that solution as well because it creates a certain kind of community. (Even though those commenters remain anonymous to the public, I think Stranger staffers *must* know who they are.)

And to address your actual post, all of your objections to the new policies stand. Why turn the comments *back on* and then tell people to “behave” without providing any consequences? I also didn’t understand why the default position was off. Hunh?

On my news org’s blog, anonymous commenters are called “Anonymous Coward,” but that doesn’t stop the (occasional) troll. I’d prefer that we verify commenters, but on the other hand, that is a barrier, and we might lose potential commenters that way.

Ah, the eternal blog comment question … thanks for the post; I’ll be pointing it out to my Reporting 1 students along with the Engadget posts about commenting. (Hm, I see a midterm question in the works … )
Suzi Steffen (@suzisteffen & @Reporting1Suzi)

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