Blog comments are destroying the Internet

Joel on Software has a solution to all the Internet's problems: Blogs shouldn't allow comments. "You don't have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else's thoughts. That's not freedom of expression, that's an infringement on their freedom of expression." Tell me what you think in the blog comments.

Joel on Software has solved the root of all problems on the Internet: Anonymous blog comments.

Now, before we launch into a hate-filled tirade about what an idiot Joel is (my tirade will be polite, you see), let's make a clear distinction: Joel is against anonymity, not privacy. Privacy is the right to surf and download without anyone unreasonably knowing what you're doing. Anonymity is the right to participate in interaction without that participation being tied to your real identity.

In Joel's eyes (and Dave Winer's, who he's quoting), anonymity is destructive. So much so that they both argue blogs shouldn't allow comments. "You don't have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else's thoughts. That's not freedom of expression, that's an infringement on their freedom of expression."

Here's where the argument goes off the rails, in my opinion.

Now, like Joel, I'm a subscriber to John Gabriel's Greater Internet #@&%wad Theory, which quantifies the problem as Normal People + Anonymity + Audience = #@&%wad. There's an argument to be made that many (but far from all) of the flame wars and antisocial behavior on the Web would be smothered in the crib if people were forced to use their real names. Holding people accountable for their actions is an imperfect art--just ask eBay--and there's no cure for the legitimate sociopath who simply wants to make life miserable for other people, and is happy to be credited with doing so. That said, if you force folks to own what they say, odds are they'd watch what they say, too.

Let's set aside the fact that I don't know any blog reader that can't intellectually separate a blog post from its associated comments. Let's also assume that Joel and Winer aren't simply thin-skinned egotists who can't stand dissent amongst their readership, and that there's more at work here.

OK, Joel, you're not happy with anonymity? Fine. But there's a long road between no anonymous comments and no comments at all. That's the baby going out with the bath water. So far as demanding that the counter-argument go on in a separate unassociated blog (which is what I'm doing right now)--that isn't dialog. It's the same difference as two politicians running ads and counter ads on television, versus having an in-person debate. One has more intellectual heft and value than the other, and I think it's obvious which is which (the current soundbyte-contest political debate formats notwithstanding).

Allowing comments on your blog is like inviting people into your house--there's some overhead involved, even if everyone is civil. If someone doesn't act with human decency, it's on you to throw their butt out. We call it moderation, and it's as old as the Internet itself. If that's too much work for you, you're welcome to not invite folks over, but don't frame that as somehow a morally superior or intellectually elegant solution. Sitting alone in your living room shouting missives out the window is not preferable to inviting interested parties inside to engage in conversation. Simply throwing up your hands and giving up on comments is the easy way out, for sure, but it's not intrinsically better.

Here's a thought, why not force people to register before they can comment? There's a whole spectrum of interaction barriers out there, and the harder you make it to post, the more value poster will place on his login--and he will act in a fashion that prevents his losing it.

Just short of banning comments altogether, author John Scalzi only allows forum registration on his blog two days a month, and he personally approves every poster. Other sites put comments in a holding pen, and don't allow them live on the site until human eyes have signed off. Still others require a closed-loop confirmation in e-mail, verifying that your supplied address is real. And almost everybody has the temerity to hose out the trolls and the spam bots as necessary.

(Barriers also discourage interaction, so there's a fine balancing act between discouraging drive-by jerks and driving off legitimate commentors who simply refuse to jump through an unreasonable number of registration hoops.)

Sure, comments are work, but it's also the most effective way to engage an audience and actually create an interactive experience, as opposed to recreating the dying static-print medium on your monitor screen. Maintaining a legitimate Web site is a lot more complicated than simply logging onto Blogger and spouting off at the keyboard. Success breeds attention, and attention breeds trolls. It's the price of doing business. Rather than banning comments, the rational response is finding a way to deal with them.

Of course, that's just my opinion. Anybody care to comment?