The importance of ‘ human engagement’ in online conversations…

I have to confess I am ambivalent about anonymity online. I took a decision fairly early on to do most of commenting (mostly on other people’s sites) in my own name. My reasoning was twofold.

  1. I felt the most valuable contributions online I could make would be ones I could live with and defend in real (ie, non virtual life), commenting in my name would constantly remind me that what I said online would have to be defensible in ten years hence (even if that meant admitting I’d got some things wrong).
  2. It seemed to me too that if what I produced online came under my own by line then I was creating bank-able value that was clearly tagged my own work rather than that belonging to a series of flags of convenience.

And yet, anonymity has always been part of the Internet’s conversational hubs. As Martin Belam articulately points out the efforts being made to force commenters back into real world identities by two the big MSM players will not actually have the effect of pushing up the quality of the content (though I doubt this is the motive here) of their comment zones.

Often, such rigidly systemic attempts to civilise the blogosphere end up squeezing out those unexpectedly ‘stray insights’ into other less formally regulated spaces. And as Martin argues, you simply end up being unable to host conversations that allow individuals to approach (often powerfully, as in the case Martin cites on his blog) difficult or controversial problems.

For me, anonymity is a distraction. It is the ‘behaviour’, not the identity, nor indeed the acceptability or otherwise of an individual’s politics, that matters. The second tranche of work we’ve been doing with Simon at Puffbox, through 4IP, is aimed at promoting consistently good material from the comments zone to the top of the blog (which we are already doing), and giving us the tools to conduct the moderation of the site in a more systematic and gamesy way.

Along with those tools, we also want to ‘crisp up’ the ‘Slugger Rules’, (which in essence is “Play the ball and not the man”, or put slightly differently, “be civil and blunt”) in to a state where we can perhaps float them off (along with the commenting plug in) so that other sites can use them.

In doing so, we’ll draw on some of the stuff we’ve written on this over the years (like Whataboutery, Mopery, Fair Gaming, and the lazy use of buzz words like Bigot), and expand on when it’s right to let stuff go as banter, and when the rules should be more tightly enforced: which is sometimes pejoratively interpreted as Slugger’s notoriously inconsistent implementation of ‘the rules’.

In short, the tools will, I hope, help us be more consistent.  But good conversations require ‘engagement’ both from us as bloggers, but also and, just as importantly, between those individually who come to sites like Slugger looking to engage their ‘opponents’ in something approximating rational argument…

More on this anon… In the meantime, I would, as ever, value your own thoughts on this…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty