Friday, December 4, 2009

the end of anonymity

A couple posts down (very close in textual space, very distant in time), I talked about a shift away from the First Amendment as a workable principle for governing behavior on listservs (especially the WP list) and other online communities. Today I see that a San Diego paper has ended anonymous commenting on its articles, and is arguing that it's not a freedom of speech issue:

This is a forum we're choosing to host and these are the rules we're asking people to abide by.

This isn't the first move in this direction I've witnessed since I made my earlier comments. After the Fort Hood shooting, the Austin American Statesman closed off commenting on all related articles, because of the regular abuse of the posting rules. People just couldn't get it.

The question is, do these go counter to the principles of the self-regulation of the commons that economist Elinor Ostrom just won the Nobel in Economics for? Let's assume that commenting space is a kind of commons -- it's certainly a kind of attention commons. In fact, it looks like Ostrom's design principles for stable local common pool resources would be good principles for managing comment spaces in online publications:

Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external unentitled parties);
Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources are adapted to local conditions;
Collective-choice arrangements allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
There is a scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
Mechanisms of conflict resolution are cheap and of easy access;
The self-determination of the community is recognized by higher-level authorities;
In the case of larger common-pool resources: organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

Administration by First Amendment has only ended up polluting the commons. As the editors of the Voice of San Diego wrote,

Unfortunately, many of the conversations that take place underneath the articles on news websites devolve into name-calling, racist or sexist remarks, and other vulgarities. That's in no small part because of the veil provided by anonymity and a lack of moderating by news organizations.

Discussion of this issue too often devolves into talk about Supreme Court protection for anonymous speech and the necessity of anonymous speech for a democracy. I have a seed of an idea I want to think about more, but the discussion should actually be about how to protect the commons from 1) abusers and 2) private control. Are newspapers that impose standards on comments areas invoking their private control in ways that could be self-serving? Or are they actually acting in ways that are consistent with Ostrom's principles and can be sustained over time?

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