Facebook Comments: The Death of Online Anonymity

Don't look now, but Facebook is spreading its kudzulike tendrils into yet another part of the Web: the comments field. Last week, the Uber Social Network introduced a free plug-in that replaces the software a site uses to manage its comments with one built by Facebook.

The implications of this are larger than they may appear. If widely adopted, Facebook Comments could kick online trolls to the curb while pounding yet another nail into the coffin of Web anonymity.

[ Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Log into a site that uses Facebook Comments and a few things happen. One is that you'll be able to use Facebook as a universal one-time log-in for any site that uses its plug-in -- no more logging in multiple times to different sites each day. Deux, your Facebook profile pic will appear alongside the comments -- in fact, the whole comments field will look like a chunk of Facebook has been plopped down at the end of each story. Trey, you'll see less spam, thanks to Facebook's built-in filters. Quatro, if you leave the "Post to Facebook" box checked, your pithy witticisms, incisive analysis, or (in my case) sophomoric jokes will also appear on your Facebook wall -- and any replies your friends make on your Facebook page will also appear under your comments on that third-party site.

In other words, your friends' Facebook mugshots could end up on sites they've never visited -- though they'd have a heck of a time proving that to the rest of the world. So be careful when responding to comments on AdultMenInDiapers.com, or you might have some 'splaining to do.

Let's put aside for a moment problems with the Facebookization of everything (do we really want to give that much power to a guy who barely got his drivers license?) or the blithe way Facebook lets you butter your friends' identities all over the Web without telling them that's happening.

The biggest thing Facebook Comments does is kill anonymous comment trolls by forcing people to use their real identities. TechCrunch, which implemented Facebook Comments as an experiment last week, reports that while the total volume of comments is down significantly, the comment nastiness quotient is approaching zero -- except, apparently, for nasty comments about their new commenting system.

In other words, people who might have left a trollish comment under the cloak of anonymity are choosing not to comment at all under the new system, turning TechCrunch into a 24/7 lovefest. (In a word: Ewwww.)

Not surprisingly, this notion doesn't sit well with some. Blogger Steve Cheney, author of the cleverly named Steve's Blog (and, presumably, no relation to Dick), says Facebook is "killing [our] authenticity" by making us attach actual identities to comments.

...forcing people to comment - and more broadly speaking to log-on - with one identity puts a massive stranglehold on our very nature. I'm not too worried about FB Comments in isolation, but the writing is on the wall: all of this off-site encroachment of the Facebook graph portends where FB is really going in pushing one identity. And a uniform identity defies us.

Face it, authenticity goes way down when people know their 700 friends, grandma, and 5 ex-girlfriends are tuning in each time they post something on the web.

You could spend half a semester of freshman composition going over all the ways Cheney murders language and logic in that post, but I think his point is essentially this: Tying blog comments to your identity means you can no longer be a total a****** online with absolute impunity.

Personally, I think unless it somehow endangers their lives (they're whistleblowers or human rights activists under threat of reprisal), people should stand behind what they say online. Here in Cringeville, commenters are generally pretty good -- respectful of the opinions they disagree with, not prone to ad hominem attacks. Wandering into the comments forums at other sites, however, can be like entering a wild ape compound dressed like a 200-pound banana. A little more civility on the Web would be a good thing.

At the same time, handing over the Web-commenting franchise to Facebook? Not a good idea, in my opinion. For one thing, there's that "we own everything you do and we're sharing it with everyone else" problem that Facebook tends to have. The fact Facebook shares your friends' comments on your wall on another site entirely -- without notifying them or asking permission -- is a rather egregious example of this. Then there's the fact that it's a closed system; log-ons for commenting systems like Disqus or Twitter and Google identities don't work with it, and it's not clear whether they ever will. Finally, if you really want to post nasty stuff under a name that's not your own, making a fake Facebook account is pretty darned easy, so the system is hardly foolproof.

Still, I'm liking the general idea of having a consistent identity across the Web, even if it's not necessarily the same one that appears on your birth certificate.

As I've written in the past, anonymity has its uses. But one of them should never be to shield trolls or cowards.

What do you think -- identity, anonymity, or a little bit of both? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Facebook Comments: The death of Web anonymity," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter