High-Quality Pseudonym Posts

At first blush, that headline strikes me as a bit of an oxymoron. Right? How many of us have visited an article online, tentatively waded into the comments section and been assailed by the equivalent of a cafeteria food fight?

Au contraire! declares this blog post on Poynter.

The service gives each user the option of commenting with a Disqus account, a social media identity or anonymously. It says 61 percent of commenters use pseudonyms, 35 percent choose to be anonymous and 4 percent use their “real identity” verified by Facebook. It also says those with pseudonyms post the best comments, while anonymous comments are lower quality.

One theory, the article goes on to say, is that “people don’t mind being accountable online, but they don’t want it to blow back on their work or personal lives by using a real identity. A pseudonym protects them while providing a measure of accountability.”

While that’s true, I think this research is a little thin. One single site? Over what period of time? What constitutes a “quality signal”?

I offer exhibit A, a piece in the Boston Globe about MA’s Democratic senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren’s 2011 Q4 fundraising haul. It’s got all the liberal red-meat elements I’d expect to light up the message boards.

And I am not disappointed: as of this writing, there are 171 comments on an article which is barely a day old. What do they say? Let’s take a look at the first post, from pseudonymous poster “whofan”:

whofan wrote:
LearJet Lizzie recently held a glitzy gala in NYC and invited all of her Hollywood elitist friends including Barbara Streisand and George Soros.

The Pampered Professor from Hollywood can count on $million dollar donations from her elitist friends throughout Hollywood and other elitist cities around America.

One question for Lizzie the Limousine Liberal:Professor Warren, if elected – will you support the repeal of ObamaCare? Yes or No?

Quality post, or not? Well, it does sport a lot of nifty alliteration…

The of the comments are like this, with posters using pseudonyms riding off the rails in one manner or another. Maybe another possible theory would be: yes, pseudonyms can provide the protection this study suggests, but they can become a vehicle for someone to consistently rant and to develop a fan base. A read of the Warren comments is a) depressing — lots of misinformation, lots of name-calling and criticisms of the candidate’s appearance (her facial expressions!) b) are virtually all from pseudonym comments.

Democracy in action, o yah.