Anonymous Comment Reminder

Dan Hull (What About Clients) writes (again—it’s a recurring theme on his blog) about anonymous blogging and commenting:

This blog does not publish anonymous comments. Absent compelling reasons, nameless blogosphere participants, in our view, are rarely worth anyone’s time, thought, or respect–even when they think and say brilliant things. Anonymous writers have already “discounted” themselves. They are second-class citizens. And they generally say third-rate things; they have no incentive to exceed below-average.

When the Founders declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it was an act of intellectual honesty, a signal of the basis of the logical argument that followed. They were not claiming some inside knowledge of the working of the world; they were not asking their readers to believe them because of who they were. They explained their premises, described the conduct of the King, and explained how, because of those premises, that conduct justified revolution.

When Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote The Federalist Papers as Publius, they were not concealing their names to protect themselves; they were maintaining their anonymity so that their logic and rhetoric would stand or fall on its own, independent of the authority of the authors.

Anonymous writings will be credited if their premises are clear and their logic is rigid; the opinion of a known writer will be credited if the writer is credible. But an anonymous writer’s opinion is of no value.

In America today, law schools take people’s money to teach them to “think like lawyers” (and often fail). That people can graduate law school in America without knowing how to think like a lawyer—that is, with logical rigor—is a harsh indictment not only of the universities, but also of the primary and secondary education systems.

Here are we, beneficiaries of a means of mass communication unimaginable a hundred years ago, and at the same time heirs to a hundred-plus years of form over substance in American education. Anonymous commenters spew their unsupported opinions into cyberspace as though they have meaning; the only sort of argument they know the name of is ad hominem (though, having no training in rhetoric, they have no idea what it means, which is why they throw it around so much).

Those whose identities (native or constructed over years of blogging) are known have some skin in the game. If they say something ridiculously stupid, it’s attached to them forever. So they are motivated to make sense.

Known commenters more often try, at least, to support their arguments. Why? Is it just that those who are willing to identify themselves, having some skin in the game, try harder, or is it that those who are comfortable with logic are more willing to identify themselves?

Regardless of whether the chicken or the egg came first, I’m with Hull. If you’re not willing to sign your own name to your real words,

(1) Get over yourself. (2) Get some help. (3) Or simply get back to work. You’re just not ready for the bigs.

0 responses to “Anonymous Comment Reminder”

  1. I disagree. I allow the anonymous comments, and think that the arguments will rise or fall on their own merits.

    Sure it allows some people to spew, but the spewing is meritless regardless of whether a name is attached.

    The downside for the anonymous writer, of course, is that they are generally in a poor position to introduce facts, because the facts are usually unverifiable. This raises their bar.

    But that is their choice.

    I completely understand the person that wants to add a comment — the same way you or I might over a pint at the local tavern — but doesn’t really care to see their name on it the digital world for a lifetime. Can you imagine if everything you ever added to a conversation was forever searchable? Yuck.

  2. Thanks, Mark. Quickly and excuse any typos.

    Re: the Publius thing back in 1787, in a nutshell, anonymity was needed there because:

    (1) what was at stake: the issue of a then frighteningly-new and often unpopular notion of a strong centralized government,

    (2) a very short-time span (10 days) between the end of the Constitutional Convention (May-September 1787) and submission by Congress (then sitting in NYC) to the Sates for ratification,

    (3) the issue of ratification by the State of New York itself, and

    (4) the well-known personalities (authors of The Federalist) involved.

    The convention and post-convention periods had seen bitter fights between anti-Federalists and Federalists. The “Publius” idea of The Federalist papers was to take personalities out of it. Hamilton, Jay and Madison were well-known figures, each with many friends and enemies, and all of them were high-profile lightning rods before, during and after the convention in the summer of 1787. They were big dogs–and controversial ones.

    Their reputations and personalities–especially in Hamilton’s case–would have overshadowed anything they would have written. Most of the points made in The Federalist papers had already been made during the summer of 1787–and a lot of people were raw. The debates had often been bitter. A day after the convention was over, a copy of the proposed Constitution appeared in Pennsylvania newspapers. People started back-biting, arguing and name-calling right away.

    Also important: the growing state of New York was thought of being important for a nine-sate ratification–as it turned out it wasn’t–and its governor George Clinton was a rabid anti-Federalist. The problem: both Hamilton and Jay were from New York.

    Anonymity was critical to keep personalities out of the debate.

    My sources: Edmund Morgan, Clinton Rossiter, Winston Churchilll, Carl Van Doren. There are of course more. But I think they would generally agree on what I have written above. When I get time away from my day job, I will write something up on this with all the sources I have–as I have been meaning to do for about a year.

    My point: anonymity in the case of “Publius” has a context. Unless the anonymous writers out there on the net these days are all are personalities like Bill Clinton, Bill Gates or Roman Polanski–where their personalities would overshadow what they wrote–we are all entitled to know who they are.

    Eric T: “Can you imagine if everything you ever added to a conversation was forever searchable? ”

    While I know what you mean, and it’s ‘yucky’–I have written some lackluster or dumb-ass stuff on the Net– the answer for me is Absolutely Yes. “Searchability” and using our real names = the rent we all pay for being in the digital conversation. You know?

  3. While I know what you mean, and it’s ‘yucky’–I have written some lackluster or dumb-ass stuff on the Net– the answer for me is Absolutely Yes. “Searchability” and using our real names = the rent we all pay for being in the digital conversation. You know?

    But the result would be fewer comments and less discussion. I find that they often bring value — enough to allow it to continue.

    • Eric–Fair enough. Our blog apparently leaves readers so speechless that we never got that many comments–which is probably good from a work standpoint–and now we get even fewer. And I will admit this: the non-anons are not all great commenters. Still, it’s nice to know that at WAC? people are backing up stuff with a name. People need to know where to send the summons….

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