Inside Story – how not to learn from #nymwars

A post over at Craig Thomler’s egovau has alerted me to the fact that Australian Policy Online through their Inside Story site, now requires real names in order to comment. The policy (placed at the end of each story) reads:

We welcome contributions about the issues covered in articles in Inside Story. Well-argued and clearly written comments are more likely to be published, and we’re now asking all contributors to provide their full name for publication. Because all comments are moderated, they will not appear immediately.

It appear that the folk at Inside Story, and their editor, Peter Browne, are taking a fairly robust stance on this matter; at least judging by the email trail Craig has published.

As the recent nymwars over Google’s insistence on real names for Google+ illustrates, insistence on real names is neither useful nor valid, and in fact excludes many for a number of reasons including a desire for anonymity and name structures that don’t meet a perceived level of validity. Either way, the nymwars experience is an object lesson in the harm and potentially chilling effect a real names policy imposes.

Like Craig, I’ve chosen to email the editors of Inside Story, pointing out the harm I think they’re doing. My email is below:

From: Stephen Collins

To: Peter Browne


I have been alerted to the fact that Inside Story requires real names in order to comment on articles on the site. I wish to express my very strong view that this policy is both misguided and potentially harmful.

Such a policy places at risk the openness of discourse on the site, in terms of it having a chilling effect on commentary by those who for whatever reason (risk of bullying, employment risk, a wish to otherwise protect their identity, etc.) wish to remain anonymous.

There are many options available to a site like Inside Story to ensure that commentary on the site is both validated and non-spam in nature. Demanding real names ought not be one of them.

The recent and well-documented furore over Google insisting on real names for Google+ registrations – what has become known as the “nymwars” – offers a powerful object lesson on the harmfulness of such policies, the public support for anonymous (but validatable) identity and the demonstrable need for such in online (and physical world) public discourse.

You have made an ill-judged decision in imposing this policy and I urge you to reverse this decision and allow anonymous comments on Inside Story.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins | +61 410 680722 | @trib

acidlabs | Conversation. Collaboration. Community. |

I cannot argue any more eloquently than researcher, danah boyd, who posits that real names policies are an abuse of power.

UPDATE (23-1-2012, 10:00AM): In a pleasing development, Peter Brown of Inside Story has responded to me noting that pseudonymous comments are an acceptable alternative to a real name when used on Inside Story. I’m not yet certain how this plays out in practice and in their comment moderation practices, but it’s a good acknowledgement of a viable alternative.

2 Replies to “Inside Story – how not to learn from #nymwars”

  1. Hi Stephen,

    While Peter might state that pseudonymous comments are an acceptable alternative, it’s not evidenced in the new policy they introduced, nor in my email discussion with Peter (in eGovAU:

    Peter stated in one email to me, very clearly and unequivocably, that:

    “My view is that if writers use their own names then responders should too. The policy is at the bottom of each article, just above the comment field. “

  2. Peter stated: “My view is that if writers use their own names then responders should too.”

    Without debating the rational basis for this view, since none is in evidence, it is worthwhile to at least observe that real names policies have failed to accomplished the above-stated “should” so far. In practice, the only thing such a policy requires is a name that *looks* real enough to get past the filter, which, as it happens, trolls and spammers are glad to provide.

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