In comments sections of news articles and blog posts, it’s not uncommon to see someone quip “I went straight to the comments.” Many newsreaders actively seek not just to read articles when they come to a website, but also to engage on hot-button issues in politics, entertainment, or sports. Engagement is a primary appeal of consuming news online. Vibrant comment sections are a key way of growing and maintaining a news website’s readership.
Over the past few years, some news websites, notably ESPN, have moved to to using Facebook for comments. Due to Facebook’s real name policy, using Facebook for comments in this way links commenting on news articles to the rest of the commenters’ lives. This is the most common way for a website to impose a real name policy in its comments section.
2015 will see a return to discussion formats that permit individuals to create and maintain a profile separate from their primary social and professional profile. In a world where cyberharrassment is pervasive, requiring use of one’s real name forces individuals to accept any consequences and shaming that would come from offensive speech in real life. But this norm-imposed limitation of offensive speech comes at a substantial cost.
Requiring the use of real names also stifles speech that is not offensive. A person might not want her coworkers or family members to know that she enjoys cosplay or has libertarian political views — not because those aspects of her life are shameful or because she would speak about those interests in offensive ways, but because, for whatever reason, she would prefer that not be part of her public image. Such a person would not engage in forums that have real name policies. In this way, news sources with real name comment polices limit readership.
Accepting a degree of anonymity is a prerequisite for allowing individuals to engage with the news online. Engagement is a key part of the news consumption experience. Anonymity enables more engagement. More engagement leads to more clicks and thus, more revenue for content providers. 2015 will see these forces come to a head, and begin a move towards fewer real name policies in website comment sections.