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The thoughts of an American expat in Hong Kong living on an "underlying island"

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Anonymous Comments: Vile and A Pile Of Shit (or is that just Anil Dash?)

So much of what constitutes punditry in our society has fallen from being the voices of the wise or experts to just being the voices of those that have spent the most energy on personal branding regurgitating "conventional wisdom". (cf Tom Friedman)

The hot new playground for the cool kids is Google+. So it made news that Google was revoking accounts in their limited-availability system because they violated a ridiculous Terms of Service requiring a real name for accounts. On twitter I commented that this was the result of combining Google's nature as an advertising sales company with Anil Dash's latest screed on how to create hive-minds.

I know there are many who loved this post, because there are many who despise open conversations on the internet. "Authority" figures are extremely fond of guided conversations and are the most frequent contributors to the meme that anonymous commenting must be stopped because it ruins conversations.

Now Anil Dash responded to me on twitter that he never called for censorship, and I responded that he didn't get it. That his position of "confirmed IDs" lines up with the desires of the Chinese Communist Party and other authority figures who don't want to have their opinions challenged. He responded: "can't tell if you can't read or just want to be a jerk. I explicitly say anonymity is a valid and important identity option". So I went back to read his post and use the ctrl-F to search for "anony" to catch all uses of anonymous or anonymity in his post.

Because a company like Google thinks it's okay to sell video ads on YouTube above conversations that are filled with vile, anonymous comments.

...

But truly anonymous commenting often makes it really easy to have a pile of shit on your website, especially if you don't have dedicated community moderators.

...

When do newspapers publish anonymous sources? When the journalists know the actual identity and credibility of the person, and decide it is a public good to protect their identity.

Vile... Pile of shit... Definitely sounds like Anil Dash is saying anonymity is a valid and important identity option with adjectives so positive. And the last point is actually the dumbest of the three, since the use of anonymous sources rarely has anything to do with the public good, but rather it's used when a journalist exchanges access to the public figure for the right to float propaganda in to the media without accountability. The classic example of this is Judith "the Queen of all Iraq" Miller and the NY Times.

Of course I should have realised early on this was going to be one of those arguments based upon "appeal to authority" favoured by authoritarians everywhere.

If you aren't willing to be a grown-up about that, then that's okay, but you're not ready to have a web business.

...

Well, the odds are I've been doing this blogging thing longer than you, so let me tell you what I've learned:

Every time an ad agency tries to sell their product with a baby, you should throw up a defensive flag and call "bullshit". Every time an op-ed identifies the author's preferred as "the grown-ups" or "adults", you should throw up a defensive flag and call "bullshit". For example, kids are notorious for calling each other names. What's the cliche adults fling everytime? "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." See where I'm going with this? That's right I'm going to tell you to be a grown-up and take the adult's advice of not letting words hurt you. See how easy it is to say the complete opposite when "appealing to the authority of social expectations/norms".

And if you have doubts about the effectiveness of confirmed IDs in producing a hive-mind environment, read the 135 comments on the post. Adoring sycophancy. 135 comments with only a single person calling "bullshit" and that one Anil Dash quickly deflects in to the analogy of meatspace and conversations in a courthouse. *rolls eyes* A blog is just like a courthouse. *snort* Was there a vigorous back and forth discusion in the comments? No, just a lot of "great post" "I agree" of the sort that you see used by link spammers and have as much value as an AOLer's "me too".

Which community's users worked hard and used their brains and skills to vote their Fearless Leader to be Time Magazine's Most Influential Person in 2009? Which community's users have voted in polls that it's one of the most hated brands in America? The first is surely a community that Anil Dash would claim is full of assholes. The latter is the one Anil Dash uses as his confirmed identity provider for his blog.

Which community's creativity spawns internet memes? Which community's creativity spawns "hateful" companion sites that make fun of the stupidity of the residents of the community? Which community produces hacktivists hated and hunted by authoritarians, whose lack of moral authority causes them to resort to criminal and civil litigation to maintain their authority? Or would you prefer the community that pulls out the ban hammer on noted social provacateurs like Roger Ebert *ooooooh... ain't he scary*?

So if confirmed ID is more of a problem than a solution to vigourous conversations and community, then what could you learn from a truly successful social community? 4Chan as best as I can tell does use moderators to delete posts that violate the Terms of Service. The basic rule is don't post anything that would threaten the continued existence of the community itself and use the right forum for your comments. Being the target for overzealous prosecutors means that 4Chan has to be vigorous in stamping out anything which constitutes illegal activity, like child pornography. The community is quick to flag offending posts as items to avoid or probable jailbait trolls from law enforcement or online vigilantes. The key takeaway here is "inclusive ownership". Anil Dash's commentary and comments are all focused on "my community" "my house". 4Chan is focused on "our commmunity" even if "our" is a semi-transient set of anonymous users. Who do you think will conform to community standards more? The commenter who is viewed as a visitor and outsider or the commenter who is viewed as a member of the community. Would you rather visit the bar with a gate at the door to only allow in the "proper people" or the neighborhood dive with a stool open for a newbie with the expectation that you'd quickly become part of the community?

Having been part of the Slashdot community when it introduced accounts and community moderation and meta-moderation, the goal wasn't to eliminate the FreeBSD is dead or Hot Grits Down My Pants or First Post or Natalie Portman trolls (see the memes generated by anonymous trolls?) it was to provide incentives to commenters to bring them in to the community. One of Anil Dash's commenters specifically mentioned avoiding a site based on software originally derived from Slashdot's model, the Daily Kos. If dKos is too rough and tumble and too coarse for you, then stick with the AOL me-too'ers at Anil Dash's. On the other hand many patrons of the Great Orange Satan refuse to stumble over to Baby Blue because Atrios allows anonymous comments and *gasp* the comments wander off topic and force open threads every few hours when there is no topic. The unconfirmed persistent pseudonyms and now confirmed pseudonyms with the advent of Disqus celebrate marriages and births and birthdays and commiserate divorces and deaths with one another unprompted by the blog owner. The community also has the dumbest trolls on the planet. But as Winston Churchill might say, "In the morning I'll be sober, and you'll still be ugly." Or as the Eschaton-started meme puts it, "he's stupid, ugly and nobody likes him.

If you really want to deter the drive-by trolls that don't want to be anything beyond a disruption to the community (scroll trolls, word salad trolls, talking points trolls, link scam/SEO trolls) hook up your comments to an IP blacklist. My preference is the spamhaus.org's sbl-xbl blacklist. This is a list of IP addresses that have either been reported for actively sending email spam or is an exploited machine, i.e. likely member of a bot net. Trolls, like the China Law Blog-type and 50 Centers, love to use exploited machines as open proxies to spew their multiple personalities. And astroturfing is every bit as corrosive to good conversation and community as "cruel and inhuman" or "racist" comments.

UPDATE 8:45pm HKT
Let me come back briefly to Anil Dash's analogy of the court house. I guess he's suggesting that if an officer of a court with an ID Badge started to act beligerent and threatening his/her fellow employees, that would be acceptable to the court house because a confirmed ID was involved. Or maybe not. The problem is the behaviour, not whether the perpetrator is ID'd or not. And given the latest update from Google on their ID policy, this doesn't bode well for Google+ as a community beyond its reach as an advertising platform for Google and those that have spent a lot of energy on their personal brands.