Saturday, October 20, 2007

Who is he and what is he to you...

One of the most vexing issues facing us in HoCo Blogdom is that of anonymous commenters and whether contributions from the nameless are more or less constructive, informed, civil, etc.

Obviously, I allow anonymous comments on this blog and for the most part, always have. Also for the most part, discussions on this blog have generally been fruitful and productive, especially if you exclude the period from September to November of last year, when politics was too central to really discuss anything intelligently.

That said, I've never fully been sold on completely anonymous comments, for both pragmatic and philosophical reasons. Pragmatically, trying to maintain a discussion with several people named "Anonymous" is like herding cats. Philosophically, I tend to lean towards Jessie in the sense that a name -- even a made up one -- creates an identity and reputation that need to be protected and therefore an incentive to "think twice" about saying something foolish, inappropriate or out of character. Using Tom Berkhouse as the counter argument to this isn't appropriate because, for good or bad, he has a reputation that needs to be maintained, too.

That's a long way of shrugging my shoulders and saying "I don't know." Much of my (and others) thoughts on anonymity stem from experiences and observations, both of which are susceptible to personal biases. Not to say that it's perfect in anyway, but here's an external data point we can add to our assessment on the anonymous situation.

The beauty of open-source applications is that they are continually improved and updated by those who use them and care about them. Dartmouth researchers looked at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to determine if the anonymous, infrequent contributors, the Good Samaritans, are as reliable as the people who update constantly and have a reputation to maintain.

The answer is, surprisingly, yes. The researchers discovered that Good Samaritans contribute high-quality content, as do the active, registered users. They examined Wikipedia authors and the quality of Wikipedia content as measured by how long and how much of it persisted before being changed or corrected.

“This finding was both novel and unexpected,” says Denise Anthony, associate professor of sociology...

...By subdividing their analysis by registered versus anonymous contributors, the researchers found that among those who contribute often, registered users are more reliable. And they discovered that among those who contribute only a little, the anonymous users are more reliable. The researchers were most surprised to find that the reliability of Good Samaritans’ contributions were at least as high as that of the more reputable registered users’ contributions...

...According to Anthony, Wikipedia now requires that anonymous contributors who make numerous edits must register.

“This will probably limit the number of low-quality contributions we find among high-use anonymous contributors, because in exposing their identity, they will have their reputation to consider,” says Anthony. “I don’t foresee this new policy affecting the quality of those Good Samaritans, though. Their presence should continue to be valuable.”

(Emphasis mine.)

I have concerns about reading too much into the study because I think there is a key difference between high frequency anonymous commenters on this and other local blogs versus high frequency anonymous Wikipedia editors. I suspect that on Wikipedia these folks are focused on poisoning the well, so to speak. For ideological, political or other reasons, they are compelled to purposely spread misinformation on certain controversial topics (evolution, global warming, the Laffer curve, etc) or to continue beating a single drum. For these people, a name is a signal to all others that the content they've added should be ignored.

Although there is likely some of that going on on the local blogs (for instance, the person who continues to comment on posts on another blog that are over a year old), I think the vast majority of anonymous commenters of all frequencies make positive contributions to the discussions by addressing the issue at hand and maintaining a respectable level of civility.

Clearly, this study doesn't hold the answers to the questions we face -- indeed, it might even raise a few more -- but it does provide an interesting perspective on the idea of anonymity in general, even if its conclusions are pretty much aligned with intuition.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

The way I read the wiki item is very positive toward anon contributions - even on the wiki site that seems to be targeted by ax griders, miscreants are a minority rather than the rule.

I'm disappointed that this blog owner would side with the hometown owner who blackballed someone who said nothing harsh and used his real name. That flies in the face of what you, Ian, have proported to represent, and work toward.

Also, it flies in the face of your early actions. I'm disappointed because you have lost your memory of what it's like to feel compelled to new make points and contribute to discussions while feeling as though it's not safe to be honest.

The inability to feel safe to making opposing comments is the foundation of tyranny. I don't trust people who won't allow a two way dialogue - my view is that they take (horde?) power as priority over free expression.

There are many reasons people comment anonymously - though I'd argue that free expression is the most important.

Your writing is so sane, but the forgetfulness and incongruencies are sadly telling, unless there is more that you didn't say. I'm still hoping for something to hang onto.

You're easy to like but these statements amount to taking a spot in the inner circle, accumulating power and forgetting where you came from. Forgetting the remainder of us who are still regular citizens.

J. Newburn said...

Miss Hometown Columbia (that's me) has blue balled a guy or two, dear Anon #768,421, but never blackballed anyone. The term I think you seek is "black listed." I have not black listed anyone, though I most certainly have deleted comments, as I state I claim the right to do in my TOS. (That'd be *terms of service,* if you're curious.)

Freemarket said...

Too much information...

John G. Boyle said...

Ha!

J. Newburn said...

Too much information? Dear Freemarket, I'm simply providing an opposing -- and perhaps balancing -- point to those who find it fearful to disclose anything about themselves on the internet.

hayduke said...

Anon: I never said I agreed or disagreed with Jessie’s decision to, er, ban a commenter. I merely said I “tended to lean towards” her belief that a name “creates an identity and reputation that need to be protected.” Which doesn’t seem like a very controversial thing to say.

Obviously, I still accept anonymous comments and probably always will. I even think they’re generally pretty good and said as much in the post. For instance: “I think the vast majority of anonymous commenters of all frequencies make positive contributions to the discussions by addressing the issue at hand and maintaining a respectable level of civility.”

Also, I drew a distinction between the high-frequency anonymous commenters on the local blogs and high-frequency anonymous wiki editors, who, the study states, are the ones who present the most problems.

Perhaps I didn’t write as clearly as I should have. Perhaps I shouldn’t try writing posts while watching my nieces and trying to get ready for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Lesson learned.

As I said, I plan to allow anonymous commenters on this blog indefinitely. No registration required, which is more than we can now say for other local forums.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are much more open than other forums. I'll hang on to that for now.

Should I respond to the other comment filled with reactionary in-your-face attitude, lacking any space between submittal and raw agression? No.

Anonymous said...

What is a webcast?

Anonymous said...

Alright I'll say it - albeit anonymously - it doesn't take some sort of fbi writing analyst to see the obvious likeness of writing style between pzguru and tom berkhouse.

http://hocomd.wordpress.com/2007/10/15/outing-tom-berkhouse/#comments

Even when saving only the most vitriolic and offensive for one pen name, the general style stays exactly the same. I don't know any of the players here but if they are not the same person that's one hell of a coincidence.

Anonymous said...

#769 yadda. Whatever. Jess: everyone knows who you are though you seem to think that's a good thing, being from the zombie I-must-live-like-celebrity culture.

Many are past it. My sympathies.

What? You think that shouting out my address is a threat that will silence opposition?

It's those who think like you that make anonymous posting honorable.