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Saturday, June 02, 2012

Signing Off and Brief Reflections on Blogging

I've really enjoyed my guest stint this month -- special thanks to Howard for facilitating my visit, and to Dan and the other Prawfs for having me.

The experience has left me with a new appreciation for the challenges of blogging.  It's not quite like any other form of writing that I've done in the past.  Something about the internet tends to facilitate misunderstandings, and so it seems to me that blogging requires a heightened precision of language.  One of my personal techniques for overcoming writers' block when I'm working on scholarship is to pretend I'm a blogger on deadline -- "I have until 3pm to write four paragraphs on X."  The thinking behind my technique has always been that pretending to blog is a way of getting something done, without necessarily making sure that it's perfect.  I've found, though, that blogging in real life is produces quite the opposite tendency -- I want to make sure that every word is just right.  I'll probably continue to use my pretend-blogging exercise when I'm trying to get something done, but with a new understanding that it's simply not a reflection of the way blogging really works in practice.

Blogging has also made me far more aware of the difference that anonymity/pseudonymity makes.  Of course, this isn't at all a new debate.  But with a few exceptions, I've noticed a marked disparity in the thoughtfulness, coherence, and overall quality of signed responses versus pseudonymous ones.  Signing your name to a comment forces you to own your words, and, consequently, choose them more carefully.  Requiring signed comments on any given blog would probably reduce the overall number of comments.  Given the miniscule intellectual contribution of most pseudonymous comments, however, the reduction in quantity is a sacrifice that I personally would be willing to make in order to elevate the quality of the overall discourse.

Posted by Nancy Leong on June 2, 2012 at 11:43 AM | Permalink


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I agree with Andrew's assessment that most anonymous/pseudonymous commenters' fears are overstated. For example, I'm an untenured professor, and during my month here I've written about race discrimination and affirmative action, which are both deeply controversial topics. Yet I manage to write under my own name. I find it difficult to believe that most anonymous/pseudonymous commenters face greater risks for owning their views than I do. And if someone's reason for commenting anonymously is really that compelling (is the person a CIA operative? a participant in the witness protection program?) then perhaps that person should be more wary of commenting at all, given the ease with which IP addresses can be traced. Of course there are some exceptions, like the personal matters that others have mentioned -- the sorts of things that we tend to protect in the courtroom with our rules of evidence and could likewise find ways to respect in cyberspace.

I also want to make clear that my views aren't about particular commenters, but, rather, about the broad practice of anonymous/pseudonymous commenting and its effect on online discourse. Of course there are anonymous commenters who make interesting and valuable contributions, and named commenters who don't. But when the default is that anonymity is permitted, there's no consequence for writing a comment that's poorly reasoned, poorly written, disparaging, harrassing, or simply useless. This accounts for the aggregate disparity in the quality of comments from those who own their views and those who don't. And when we talk about whether anonymous commenting helps or harms discourse, it's important to take into account all the people who *don't* comment out of fear of the sort of online harassment that anonymity facilitates. Racial minorities and women disproportionately experience online harassment and thus tend to be particularly vulnerable to this chilling of speech. For those interested in this topic, I recommend Danielle Keats Citron's article, Cyber Civil Rights, available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1271900.

Finally, I want to highlight a fundamental disagreement underlying this discussion. Some people appear to view the opportunity to comment on a blog post -- under any name or no name at all -- as an entitlement. These people become indignant if anyone attempts to interfere with that supposed entitlement. But in my view, commenting isn't an entitlement; it's a privilege. I was invited to blog here and I wrote a post. That doesn't automatically mean that all of cyberspace now has the right to a commenting free-for-all, right here in the thread that I started. Nothing requires me to allow comments at all. And certainly nothing requires me to concede that eliminating anonymous commenters would result in an aggregate harm to a conversation that I initiated. People who want to air their views anonymously are free to start their own blogs, or to direct their browsers to other blogs that will welcome them.

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Jun 4, 2012 10:54:32 AM

When I guest blog here, my policy is to ignore anonymous and pseudonymous comments. I wonder if many would go away if others adopted the same policy.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jun 4, 2012 12:08:35 AM

One can appreciate, though, why someone who thinks the Volokh blog is a repository of "thoughtful" comments would want to preserve his anonymity!

Posted by: Brian | Jun 3, 2012 7:33:40 PM

Talking about intimately personal matters is one of the times when I think that anonymity can be justified (though of course it's a case-by-case thing). But (absent extreme circumstances) it's hard for me to see how "teachers, lawyers and other professionals" are put at serious risk by airing their opinions in public. I'm sure there are cases where they legitimately fear unwarranted reprisals, but there are so many people who use it as a shield for uninformed, unthoughtful comments (the VC is a great example) that I now approach anonymous commenters (and anonymous bloggers) with a heightened skepticism that I don't apply to those who are willing to own their words.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jun 3, 2012 3:46:10 PM

Blogs overall have "certain" useful material. This applies to named and anonymous posts. The OP here responded to a certain person who made a bad argument. But, people at other blogs who use their real name do that too. I can cite examples, but will not.

I wrote a few things under my own name at a legal blog and doing a search of my name continues to bring up my comments.

Is it "overblown" or a matter of being "unpleasant" for teachers, lawyers and other professionals in various fields not to have their opinions on certain matters known to everyone under their actual names? Will they be as open and honest in various cases if they were? If I talked about certain personal issues, no, I don't want everyone to be able to know who I am when I do so or have people to be able to do a Google search and find it out. This isn't a live setting where only a small group of people see you.

Anonymity has benefits and problems. Both should be noted.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 3, 2012 1:25:02 PM

There are certainly pseudonymous commenters who make good contributions. Are there can be legitimate reasons for not signing one's name. But, all else equal, a commenter who signs their name will be more thoughtful, and (as best as I can tell—in my experience pseudonymous commenters are almost always vaguer about their reasons for pseudonymity than their pseudonymity requires) claims about the necessity of pseudonymity are either (a) overblown, or (b) justified by the fact that the individual is a truly unpleasant person online, and doesn't want that unpleasantness affecting their professional life.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jun 2, 2012 3:46:18 PM

This is repetitive, but "miniscule intellectual contribution of most pseudonymous comments" is particularly overblown to me.

I won't make this personal though I don't sign with my name and my email address doesn't provide my name either. I have been reading legal and other blogs for years now. Putting aside Facebook type format systems, which do encourage fly by remarks, I have found lots of "intellectual contribution" here and elsewhere from anonymous comments.

I simply don't find it accurate and I think various named contributors would agree with me. I'll leave it there.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 2, 2012 3:05:32 PM

Volokh Conspiracy, e.g., generally includes anonymous commenters though some provide links to email addresses or blogs, and there are lots of thoughtful comments. There also are reasons, some professional, why some may not want to provide their name, especially given the power of Google. I also find some of the arguments made by named contributors here and elsewhere, to put it harshly, at times specious.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 2, 2012 2:58:45 PM

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