New study: Real names improve quality of website comments


A study of South Korean website commenters adds to the debate over whether requiring real names improves online discourse. Gregory Ferenstein writes:

For 4 years, Koreans enacted increasingly stiff real-name commenting laws, first for political websites in 2003, then for all websites receiving more than 300,000 viewers in 2007, and was finally tightened to 100,000 viewers a year later after online slander was cited in the suicide of a national figure. The policy, however, was ditched shortly after a Korean Communications Commission study found that it only decreased malicious comments by 0.9%. Korean sites were also inundated by hackers, presumably after valuable identities.

The study, he writes, provides some real data to combat the theorizing that using real names fosters better online discourse. His conclusion: "The presence of some phantom judgmental audience doesn’t seem to make us better versions of ourselves."

The researchers, who compared comments on two websites from 2005 to 2010, came to a different conclusion: "Our findings suggest enhanced identification process shows significant effects on reducing uninhibited behaviors at the aggregate level, but there is no significant impact regarding a particular user's behavioral shift."

Other evidence complicates the picture. Last year, the Los Angeles Times compared the nature of discussion on its news stories, which at the time allowed psuedonyms, to the discussion on its blogs, which used Facebook Comments.

“The level of discourse — the difference — was pretty stunning,” said [Jimmy Orr, online managing editor of the Los Angeles Times.] The people posting through Facebook Comments displayed anger, but it didn’t have to be heavily moderated. “On the articles, it immediately plunged into the lowest common denominator — racism, threats, vulgarity. It was night-and-day.”

A study by Disqus, which allows anonymous and pseudonymous comments, suggested a middle ground in the ongoing discussion over real identities. My colleague Jeff Sonderman reported:

The service gives each user the option of commenting with a Disqus account, a social media identity or anonymously. It says 61 percent of commenters use pseudonyms, 35 percent choose to be anonymous and 4 percent use their “real identity” verified by Facebook. It also says those with pseudonyms post the best comments, while anonymous comments are lower quality. One theory: People don’t mind being accountable online, but they don’t want it to blow back on their work or personal lives by using a real identity. A pseudonym protects them while providing a measure of accountability.

Related: YouTube asks users to display their Google+ identities (PC World)

Earlier: New York Times allows posts from "trusted commenters" to go live without being moderatedStudy: Commenters on may call you an idiot; on they tell you why you’re an idiotWhy we’ll never stop struggling over comment sectionsGannett sites use Facebook to improve comments

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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