Editorial: Facebook, single identities, and the right to be anonymous

Here in the small but intense world of writing for tech blogs, trolling and spam are a daily nuisance. In fact, on a highly commented-upon blog such as Engadget, dealing with them (i.e., deleting comments, banning spammers, and responding to irrational people) can sometimes feel like a full-time job. I know this firsthand, as I have, possibly more than most of the other editors here over the past few years, made it one of my primary daily tasks (along with our three amazing interns). By engaging with our commenters, I've made a few friends. Mostly though, it's a thankless task, an unending, uphill battle for Engadget, which ranges between 10 and 20,000 comments per day. The low quality of many comments is largely caused by anonymity on the internet, and the fact that anyone can sign up for as many Disqus accounts as they wish. Sure, people can log in using Twitter or Facebook, and while the number of people who choose to do so has risen drastically, nearly half of our commenters still use the Disqus option, which is the most anonymous. I'd venture to guess that 100 percent of our spammers and trolls do so. It's a major headache, and one which we've spent an incredible amount of time combating and discussing, and occasionally, just giving up on.

Late last week, a new solution came onto the scene, and in a very visible way: TechCrunch, another AOL property which has similar commenting problems (fanboys, trolls, you know: the fun types) threw the switch on Facebook's new and improved native commenting system. This essentially pulls all commenters into the Facebook architecture, meaning that most people will now be commenting with their real identity, and if, like me, you don't have a Facebook account, you can't comment there at all. It was unsurprisingly somewhat controversial, and TechCrunch themselves seem unsure of how the experiment will turn out. Several things, however, are clear: the trolls and spam were largely nuked in the time it took to throw the switch. Now, it should be said that I absolutely, 100 percent sympathize with their plight. While I'm not intimately familiar with their commenters of old, I've spent enough time reading them to recognize the same garbage there as we get on Engadget. So, when they did throw that Facebook-only switch, I was jealous. There have, since then, been some discussions (most notably by Technologizer and MG Siegler himself) about the seeming decline in the quality of some of the comments -- but I'm going to leave that aside for the moment, and talk about the larger issue in all of this that interests me far more.

Technologizer's Jared Newman starts his comments out with this Zuckerberg gem of a quote from David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect: "You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly ... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." The sentiment was echoed by Robert Scoble over the weekend, who is a voracious lover of the 'one identity on the internet argument.' And to a certain extent, they're absolutely correct: if I have to be the Laura June that my step-mother (who was friends with me on Facebook, back when I had an account) knows when I'm commenting on Gawker, well, my behavior will be much different. In fact, I might not comment at all. The problem isn't that idea: it is of course, absolutely true. The problem is that very few people seem to be questioning whether or not that is, in fact, a good thing. Because... is it? Am I no longer entitled to some separation between who I am when I'm talking about technology rather than when I'm talking about my political beliefs, should I choose to separate those things? Is a teenager no longer entitled to explore and even comment on blogs about, say, homosexuality, without logging in to Facebook to do so? Does everybody need to know everything that I like? Do they even want to?

If I was that exploring teenager, of course, and the whole world had flipped the Facebook switch, I could always just make a fake Facebook account, for sure. But it seems to me that this is a false necessity, where we force people to lie about who they are, rather than merely enabling them to choose not to disclose who they are to begin with.

One of the greatest advancements the internet has brought us is the ability to connect (yes, anonymously sometimes), people of all types. Being a 15-year old girl who fears she might be pregnant is not the same thing today that it was in 1992. Being anything that deviates from the absolute norm, or requires privacy -- whether you're anorexic, or super into Cosplay, or you're looking for the perfect place to take your girlfriend out to dinner for Valentine's Day, or even just a little bullied book nerd who doesn't have any friends at school -- has been in many ways helped by the internet, where you can always find others who are just like you, and who remind you that you're not alone, or can make suggestions about things you might like. Yes, that means there is also a place for Nazis to congregate and for the darker sides of 4Chan to exist, and for trolls to make a mess all over our blogs, which are our businesses. But are we, as a society, in agreement with Zuckerberg, where having two identities necessarily means we have less integrity?

For blogs and news sites like TechCrunch, which are businesses, the answer may be yes. After all, as businesses, we can choose to run them however we wish, and forcing people to be who they, in fact, are in real life may clean up the nagging annoyance of garbage comments that contribute nothing and waste everybody's time. We can, as a business, even choose to have no comments at all. My point here isn't really about comments on the internet, but the larger idea that "one identity" is the ultimate goal. Does my family know that I'm an ultra-left winger with the mouth of a truck driver? Yes, they do. But they don't need or care to be inundated with it 24 hours a day, and forcing me into one ecosystem every place I wander to online seems to be unnecessarily homogenizing, where the world of the internet is bound to become a more boring, less awesome place.

Of course, I'm creating a false situation for myself: I haven't done anything much anonymously on the internet in a very long time. In that way, I have a lot in common with Scoble. But most people don't. Most people aren't in any way "public," and stripping that privacy, that sense of anonymity, away from every person without even the slightest discussion seems to me to be very short-sighted, and ultimately, even dangerous. So, for now, just because we're not forcing you to be the person your grandmother knits socks for when you comment on Engadget, please remember: we're all real people, somewhere, and deleting the 700 "you're paid by Apple" comments isn't fun for those real people.