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The Impact of Commenting Systems on Civility

After a swinging party last night, we are now starting the final day of AoIR 2016. This begins with a paper by Alfred Moore, Rolf Fredheim, and John Naughton, whose focus is on online commenting practices. More and more people are getting their news online, and especially through social media; this has been creating anxieties about how people are getting their information, but the dimension of online commenting has been less thematised in this context. The structure of commenting architectures has an important role to play here.

There is a perception of a trade-off between anonymous and real-name commenting, and there has been a push for a reduction in anonymity online – but this is a fundamentally misleading approach. There are more dimensions of anonymity: configurations such as true anonymity, pseudonymity, and real-name identity are positioned across axes of durability of identity over time, and of connectedness (or connectability) of identity across platforms.

The present project captured comments on news articles on the Huffington Post over a period during which the site cycled through anonymous commenting, Facebook authentication, and commenting through Facebook. This led to an overall reduction in the volume of offensive language, but conversely also a rise in "you [insult]" formulations. Anonymous commenting invited the most offensive language, the pseudonymous phase was most civil, but the shift to real-name commenting saw an increase in incivility again.

This is also linked to gender. Comments are shorter on articles authored by women; insults are more frequently directed at women, and decline by more than the average during the pseudonymous phase. This reproduces offline power dynamics, but it also represents a bifurcation of the audience into on-site and on-Facebook audiences. The shift to Facebook means that established on-site norms for commenting are undermined, and there is a loss of the ability for the commenters to learn what levels of civility apply here.