The End of Anonymity and the Trouble with Comment Syndication
The Internet has long been a haven for anonymous discourse. And in this way, it has seemed like the web’s forums, chat rooms and social bookmarking communities have been a grand experiment. The question: “What would happen if no one was accountable for what they said online?” For many publishers and user communities, it seems, anonymity has opened the doors to the darker side of free speech. From the piteously banal to the downright offensive, numerous web denizens are working diligently towards proving that free, anonymous speech on the Internet is perhaps a failed experiment. Of course, the comment abusers and forum trolls are far from the majority—but like a table of smokers in a crowded diner, their presence is strong enough to make the room a whole lot less comfortable for the rest of us.
Because of the scourge of anonymous, childish or even hateful commenters, many major online publishers are moving away from laissez faire user communities. For example, Blizzard has announced that it will now require forumposters to use their real names. This move comes after a troubling legacy of flame wars, trolling and “other unpleasantness.”
Meanwhile, The Atlantic requires that readers register with Disqus before posting comments. Disqus, a sort of multi-platform, interoperable standard for blog comments, allows users to link up their Disqus account with their Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo account or OpenID. In this way, abusive activity can more easily be accounted for and tracked across websites.
But Disqus and other universal commenter identification systems have an interesting ulterior motive. That is, comment syndication. Disqus encourages users to cross-post comments on their other social media outlets, much in the way Google Buzz ropes in your activity from all corners of the web into one big corral. This effectively makes all conversations more global, more visible and, of course, more accountable.
But comment syndication doesn’t sit well with everyone. For example, All Tech Considered blogger Sara Sarsohn recently penned an article complaining about The Atlantic’s new comment requirements. She didn’t like having to mingle her OpenID account (which she uses for mostly personal reasons) or her Twitter activity (which is mostly professional) with a one-off comment on an unrelated article. Nor did she want to invite Facebook—with all its privacy issues—further into her online business. In the end, she opted to not comment at all.
The move away from open commenting may also affect marketers who use comments to raise awareness about their brands, products or website. More often than note, Internet marketing consultants often perform social media outreach on behalf of clients. At best, requiring a centralized online identification credentialing system will be a time-sucking convenience. At worst, it could kill the practice all together—especially on forums and blogs where moderators are extra picky about posters being who they say they are.
Of course, on the other hand, comment syndication could be a boon for Internet marketers. Commenting on relevant blogs is about visibility—and having comments cross-posted on other sites and aggregators means more exposure. Furthermore, having all of a user’s comments rounded up into one feed gives marketing agents more of an onus to provide unique, insightful comments, rather than copying and pasting cookie-cutter sentiments.
Whether or not Disqus and similar services will soon be the norm remains to be seen. But the culture of commenting is changing—for better or for worse. Internet marketers, publishers and everyday web denizens should take heed.
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