Pseudonymous commenters aren’t so bad after all

Disqus has released an infographic of some analysis they’ve done on their comments to compare pseudonymous, eponymous (real name) and anonymous commenters. They looked at both quantity and quality and found that pseudonymous commenters are better for a community than either eponymous or anonymous commenters. To save you from having to wade through a rather pointless infographic, here are the key facts:

Disqus measured Quality and Quantity:

Quality

  • Positive measures
    • Number of times a comment is liked
    • Number of times a comment is replied to
  • Negative measures
    • Number of times a comment is flagged
    • Number of times a comment is marked as spam
    • Number of times a comment is deleted

They found that, by these measures:

  • Pseudonymous comments were
    • 61% positive
    • 28% neutral
    • 11% negative
  • Anonymous comments were:
    • 34% positive
    • 55% neutral
    • 11% negative
  • Real name comments were:
    • 51% positive
    • 40% neutral
    • 9% negative

Quantity

  • Aggregate number of comments by identity
  • Average number of comments by identity

They found that the percentage of comments by identity was:

  • 61% pseudonymous
  • 35% anonymous
  • 4% real name

The average pseudonymous commenter contributed 6.5 times more than the average anonymous commenter and 4.7 times more than commenters identified via Facebook.

Now, this data is interesting, but although it’s not really a smoking gun, it certainly should give companies pause before they start trying to force people to use their real names instead of pseudonyms; they may well be encouraging a less civil environment rather than the more civil one they are trying to, or telling us that they are trying to, nurture.

I would like Disqus to repeat their work but be a bit more rigorous. For example, testing their data to ensure that they are accurately differentiating between pseudonymous, anonymous and eponymous commenters. After all, using Facebook to log in doesn’t guarantee that someone is eponymous, nor does not using it mean they are not. I’d also like them to test their quality measures against both sentiment analysis and a panel of real humans. The latter would be relatively easy to do via something like Mechanical Turk. Of course, if they’ve done this already they should publish the details in a methodology.

The whole argument about anonymity, pseudonymity and real names on the internet over the last year or so has been mainly people arguing from assertion, so it is nice to see some real data. And there can be no doubt that Disqus has a lot of comments to analyse, so this isn’t just some skewed sample from a tiny corner of the web. But we do need both to see more work in this area and more companies taking notice of the evidence instead of sticking to their well-oiled but misfiring guns.

6 thoughts on “Pseudonymous commenters aren’t so bad after all

  1. I’m suspicious of the result that pseudonyms outperform eponyms, and not just from being eponymous. Usually people use their real names to allow their identity to give them credibility, and are less willing to be ridiculous. Pseudonyms, on the other hand, often seem to form cabals that like each other and attack dissenting points of view. The small fraction of the viewers that opt to like or dislike comments must make any statistics of goodness of comments suspect in the face of these tendencies.

    As you note, however, I’m just arguing from impressions rather than measurements, so better surveys would be helpful.

  2. Hi John!

    In my experience, people are quite happy to troll using their real names. In fact, the worst trollings that I’ve ever experienced have been from people using their real-world identity.

    However, I’d prefer real data on this rather than a series of anecdotes. I’ve seen people provide powerful and emotive descriptions of their experience of interacting with others online, but ultimately we won’t get to the truth of the matter in this case based on anecdote. I wish Disqus had been more thoughtful and rigorous in their analysis, but it is at least a start. I do hope that they do more detailed studies, or open up their data to academics interested in the field, as this is stuff that we really do need to understand in more detail.

  3. I hope I wasn’t a “worst troll” in our lively discussion last year.

    In any case, my worst trollings have been from pseudonyms, some of the resorting to alleging nasty fictitious smears on my reputation and threatening to (actually sending) derogatory messages to my bosses. Only one revealed her identity, and some hide their identity to paranoid extremes.

  4. John, I never once thought of you as a troll! We had a disagreement, which I think was born more the pixelated manner in which we met and which I am sure would not have happened had we been speaking in person. I don’t class people I once disagreed with as trolls at all!

    Trolls are people who are out to deliberately disrupt, upset, and harass. I had a horrible experience on G+ last year where a couple of people took against me and decided that it was easy enough to create a private thread in which they could abuse me. It’s experiences like that that I’m talking about.

    I fully accept that pseudonymous/eponymous/anonymous people troll, although it would be interesting to see proper study looking not just as the wider behaviour of commenters, but also looking specifically at poor beheaviour.

    But, pseudonymous or not, some people delight in causing trouble for others, some people do it because for whatever reason they genuinely believe they are right, others have mental health issues. In all honesty, it’s time for us to move the debate on to how we deal with such people on the internet, rather than whether one subset is worse than another.

  5. The only trolls I’ve stirred up are those that will not back down from (what I consider to be) wrong claims, usually regarding earthquake prediction, one of my specialities. Even on the nuttiest forums, I feel compelled to try to bring facts to bear, probably a misguided strategy.

    These trolls start out amiable, but turn strident, then finally launch into fallacious accusations that I am in conspiracies, am guilty of humiliating misbehavior, and have personality disorders.

    So for me, the scary ones may fall under your category “mental health issues”. But yes a broader survey of trolls would be informative.

  6. Ahh, those who think they have found a way to do something that science cannot – in this case, predict earthquakes – are not likely to be open to rational, reasonable argument. You won’t change their minds, but you might help persuade someone who is watching the discussion, so from that point of view having such ‘debates’ can be useful. Of course, you may never find out either way!

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