Friday, November 18, 2011

Anonymity and its Pitfalls

One of the things that Not Another Wave prides itself on is its willingness to have anyone- and I do mean anyone, express their opinions on a subject so long as they're being respectful. When we founded this blog, Emily and I had just left undergrad environments where we were consistently having detailed conversations with people whose opinions differed from our own and we missed the intellectual, and subsequent social, stimulation.

This was compounded by our entirely negative experiences with Feministing right after Proposition 8 was passed in California, where posters to the site attacked and belittled a writer who identified as LDS/Mormon but who disagreed with Prop 8. The gist of the comments was that she was backwards for participating in her religion and that she couldn't be a "true" feminist when she attended a church that had played such a strong role in suppressing the rights of others. Emily and I separately wrote comments defending the author, because we're both women of faith in churches that aren't particularly feminist-leaning, and pointed out that part of the point of being in a faith community like that is bringing alternate perspectives to the interpretation of religious texts and practices. We, too, were attacked, including by moderators, and we left the site and made acceptance of multiple, divergent views a central tenet of Not Another Wave. We wanted discussion, we said, not a one-size-fits-all feminism. As part of that, we opted to let people leave comments anonymously if they felt more comfortable doing so.

In comments recently, however, our desire to create that environment and our experience with the realities of the internet has made that very difficult. Bots and true-to-life internet trolls have left comments on our site advertising "Whiter skin now!" and "Don't trust American women!" and used no alias. For us, these comments aren't contributions to a broader feminist dialogue, and we've deleted them. The problem is that other anonymous posters, in expressing their views, have been caught in the crossfire recently. I misidentified one anonymous commenter on a recent Feminist Question of the Week as a troll, which not only was rude, but shut down potential conversation that could have clarified some of the misunderstanding that had come from that comment in the first place. To that commenter, I apologize.

What this leads to, for me, is the question of whether anonymous posting is actually beneficial at this point. For the initial founding of the blog, we were limited by Blogger's insistence that people sign in with their Blogger IDs; to me, that meant that everyone had to have a Blogger account to participate, and I didn't like the way that limited our options or forced people to use their real names if they'd be more comfortable with an alias. Today, with our current settings, users can sign in with accounts for Google, LiveJournal, and OpenID as well as other sites. Users without registered accounts can also sign in with a made-up name and URL if they prefer, which protects privacy. This last option, however, is only available if we also permit fully anonymous posting.

My concern is that the anonymous posting, while important, has created an "all I have is a hammer" scenario where bots are able to post nasty ads for our site and regular readers get caught up in the same net. I'd like to bring the question to the readers: if we made the comments available to registered users only (meaning signing in to Blogger with a Google, AIM, OpenID, LiveJournal, Wordpress, or Typepad account), how do you feel that would affect the ability or willingness of people to participate in conversations, for better or for worse? How valuable is it to you to have the option, right now, of being anonymous or using an on-the-spot pseudonym when commenting?


  1. I'm pretty paranoid - for good reason, I think; my mother stalked me online for about a year, once, and got me in trouble with my religious leaders because she /thought/ I'd joined a cult (I hadn't).

    As a result, I like the option of anonymity not because I don't trust the people HERE, but because I don't trust the people who might see my words on here, know who exactly it is, and get me in trouble with people I'd just really rather not deal with. Feminism isn't smiled upon by most people in my by-obligation circles, but I need a safe place to come and talk about it still the same. So please, keep the option available for me to be anonymous if I need to be!

  2. What if we required that anonymous posters choose a nickname and deleted any comments without a nickname?

  3. Works for me, Emily. :)

  4. What is the difference between someone choosing a nickname and someone simply staying anonymous? What does the nickname add to a conversation? Do nicknames stop trolls from fishing? But after all that I would have no problem with being totally transparent with my commenting because even if people can look and my google profile they still have no idea who I am. I am still functionally anonymous.

  5. Jon, great questions. I think you're right that nicknames won't stop trolls from trying to cause trouble, but we don't get many trolls here at NAW - instead, we often get people who post anonymously with good intentions, but who are so vague, that their anonymity makes their comments suspect.

    For those with good intentions, I think requiring nicknames would help create a sense of an ongoing discussion. When I comment on blogs outside of blogger, I often just use the nickname ecb (plus a link to NAW), which means that someone who recognizes ecb can contextualize some of the things I say.