Commenting on Blogs Anonymously

It seems to me clear there can be contexts where it would be best for a person to be allowed to post a comment on a blog anonymously. Perhaps, for example, a grad student wants to raise issues about sexist attitudes, behaviors, and assaults in her dept. But there are cases where anonymity creates problems. Perhaps, for example, a small very active group of hostile folks raise the temperature so often at a blog that people not going there for the give and take of outrage are driven away and the profession loses one of the few forums where there might be a broad, welcoming, discipline-wide discussion. If we grant that there are cases of both sorts, what is the most sensible general policy for a blog?

In my view, a person should be permitted to start up a blog and choose any reasonable commenting policy she wants. So my question is not about what is permissible, but rather with what is the most wise policy for the person who runs the blog to pick. (Also, I am not familiar with blogs that regularly permit anonymous posts–as opposed to comments–so I will focus on commenting policy.)

Here are some options: 1) permit people to comment under whatever name they want, 2) require all commentators to “register” with the person who runs the blog before they may post anonymously to the blog, 3) permit a person only a certain number of anonymous comments per month, 4) within the same blog, have some posts that are open to anonymous comments and others that are not, so people can pick and choose what sort of environment they want to blog in, 5) require commentators to make a case to the blog owner that this is a context where anonymity is for the good, 6) forbid all anonymous commentating.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts about the comparative merits of these or other options. I myself have the sense that unlimited anonymity is robbing us of much of the usefulness of some blogs. And we here at PEA Soup feel that our restrictions on anonymous comments has elevated the discussion here as compared to some other blogs. This is not an abstract argument that de-anonymization is the right way to go in all contexts. Rather I think looking around at the situation with, for example, Daily Nous, it seems to me anonymization is doing at least as much harm as good. Anonymization provides something like the Ring of Gyges to commentators, with predictable results. There are those that thrive in contexts where the temperature has been instantly raised to boiling before the issues are even clarified. But many do not welcome or thrive in such an environment, and they will be driven away from blogs where that is the norm. I would like it best if there were places where shouting and indignation were not the starting points. (I’m totally cool with there being places that are like that as long as there are salient discipline wide options that are not like that.) People can be effectively silenced by not being able to state their unpopular opinion without bringing broad censure from others. But they can also be effectively silenced by there not being a venue one can enter without it being reasonable to expect shouting, abuse, and dogged resistance by the indefatigable.

My own view is that the best policy involves real restrictions on anonymization. Some such policies would create a lot of additional work for those that run blogs, at least in the short term. They might, for example, have to deal with lot of requests for anonymization and indignation when such requests are denied. To deal with that there might be an editorial board of sorts that adjudicates such cases. Additionally, as time goes on and the policy becomes more fine grained and public, presumably fewer and fewer people will waste their time making a frivolous case for anonymization.

Even if something in this direction is the best approach, there are interesting and important issues about which cases deserve anonymity. Is it enough if a full professor at a well-known institution says they think their unpopular opinion will bring them negative opinion from others unless they get to be anonymized? What if a grad student claims that, say, conservative voices are underrepresented in philosophy and/or in a particular blog and they need to be able to speak anonymously to get ideas out without hurting their job prospects? There will be difficult decisions to be made here and I suspect that practice at making such decisions and honing a public policy on such matters would lead to this being done more skillfully and consistently over time. I’d welcome people’s substantive opinion about which cases merit anonymization and which do not. But I think the costs of permitting the status quo need to be considered. As is, Daily Nous, for example, provides a very atypical exposure to general philosophy culture and, in my view, is not likely to be found generally welcoming to women, minorities, and the not overly confident, who are already severely underrepresented in our field. For many considering a career in philosophy, such venues may well be a person’s first exposure to the broader culture of philosophy. Thus I think we need to think carefully about what that exposure looks like and feels like.

10 Replies to “Commenting on Blogs Anonymously

  1. As a graduate student, I know I would be inclined to ask more “dumb” questions and engage more with others on topics of interest to me. I like Options 1 and 4.

    A possible option might be something like a transparent moderation, where the blog owner can remove what they deem to be offensive/hostile anonymous posts from the thread (but then have a link or section for “removed posts” so that those who are seeking to see what was said can view the content).

    On this point: “Perhaps, for example, a grad student wants to raise issues about sexist attitudes, behaviors, and assaults in her dept.”

    When you are one of only 2-3 female graduate students in a program (or a minority student experiencing discrimination), they’re still going to know it’s you, or, will believe it’s you who spoke up even when it wasn’t. That’s why people don’t speak up. It’s too easy to identify who the person is and the fear of retaliation is very real.

    This is why departments should preemptively have a reporting/no-retaliation system in place to ensure that the good cops…I mean, concerned faculty and students who observe/experience ethical violations can speak up while feeling protected. Better yet, a third party entity could be formed (not affiliated with the University) to investigate graduate student concerns (an AAUP of sorts for graduate students). Perhaps this is something the APA’s GSC might want to think about.

  2. It is an interesting alternative to moderate individual comments rather than anonymization policies. But that path may be more work for the people who run the blog. And, if anonymization produces the Ring of Gyges effect I was suggesting, it may be that an unwelcome tone remains even when individual problematic comments are removed.

    I hear your concerns that anonymity for people who speak up as members of a small minority may well be afforded less anonymity than others. That strikes me as a real issue and your suggestions seem good to me. Janice Dowell and I had some other suggestions for some related cases you can find here:

  3. 2 strikes me as the best balances of work for the blog operator(s) and opportunity to speak anonymously if the volume of comments is significant or large.

  4. Perhaps a variation on 2 worth considering: allow anonymous posting, but also open up a complaints line for abusive or hostile commentary. If a comment is flagged, then the blog operator can use their discretion to remove it or to warn the poster of the complaint–a sort of yellow card. Any further complaints and they will lose the ability to post anonymously.

  5. I wonder if it would be possible to combine the second option, those who want to comment anonymously have to register with the blog owner, with allowing people to choose to see the comments section with or without those registered anonymous commentators.

  6. Hi David, while we’re debating this blog commentary policy, do you think we should also be working to change the kinds of disciplinary forces/trends that have made so many people anonymously express their disagreement with what they take to be a moral orthodoxy? I know several grad students, postdocs and untenured faculty who are afraid to register any in-person disagreement with what they take to be the ‘party line’ on various topics, though they are by no means hardlin conservatives. It strikes me that to advocate for anonymity-restrictions *without* also advocating for serious initiatives that promote social openness is just to decide that these people deserve to be silenced while others do not, and to sustain the conditions that create the problem in the first place. Do you have any constructive thoughts on how to reduce the felt pressure here? (I am a postdoc posting this comment anonymously precisely because I feel this pressure, and because I believe that even raising this meta-level question will signal to many that I am not on the right team.)

  7. Thanks for your comment, Joe. I had claimed there are cases where anonymization is good and cases where it is bad. I meant to be saying that the positive side would include vulnerable people being able to speak up on behalf of dismissed or loathed (within the academy) yet reasonable points of view. I tried to point to cases where anonymization is also creating problems. Are we agreed to that point? If so, then the search for a way to try to allow the good while diminishing the bad, I would think, should be common ground.

    I do wish the left could sit still better and listen to and seriously engage with conservative or non-left points of view rather than just point to the most outrageous versions of such. But I don’t see that problem being solved anytime soon. Perhaps others have helpful proposals. We might, for example, speak up on social media if we see folks being unfair to non-left points of view. But waiting to address topic X in a blog post until one has good proposals for overcoming very large and related problems Y and Z strikes me as a recipe for inaction.

  8. Anonymity is essential if the idea is to make someone exploring a new ( for them ) field of knowledge feel comfortable enough to try to participate. Fear of embarrassment has a powerful freezing effect.

  9. Daily Nous is now experimenting with option 4. I’ll be very interested in whether we see a difference in tone.

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