The idea that we can be anonymous on the Internet is addictive.
Let me begin by stating the obvious: my name is Blaine Sundrud (notice the byline above). Also, to demonstrate that I am not afraid to tell you who I am, allow me to say that I work for Digital Technology International. My phone number is +1 801 853-5000. I am a consultant for the news industry. For fun, I do woodturning. I play World of Warcraft.
I am one of over 11 million people worldwide who subscribe to be part of the World of Warcraft's virtual community. For those of you who do not know Warcraft, it is an online world where subscribers create fantasy characters and interact through these avatars with other people in real time throughout the world. For the time that I am playing in that world, I am not Blaine Sundrud, newspaper consultant; I am Golis, a Dwarven Warrior with a penchant for large axes.
Even when I am not actively playing, Blizzard, the company which owns Warcraft, provides an excellent community portal that I (and millions of others) can go to discuss events in the world (both the real one as well as the fantasy one). The amount of community involvement at the Warcraft Forums would have many audience managers at newsgroups around the world salivating.
However, the quality of that involvement is about the same as most every other news website. Trolls, flame wars, conspiracy theorists, tinfoil hat conventions, racism, sexism, ageism and a variety of other -isms cloud the forum topics. Legitimate discussions devolve into speculation about one's parentage. What should be a fellowship of players is drowned out by the vuvuzelas of troglodytes.
So Blizzard is about to do what many newsrooms around the world are considering. They are about to eliminate avatar names on their forums and require real-world names when commenting. When I post on a discussion involving bronze dragons and large axes, I won't be Golis anymore; I will be Blaine Sundrud (which a basic internet search links to everything you read in the first paragraph).
“Brilliant,” thinks the anti-troll community, “Little Billy will be more likely to be civil if we know his real name instead of him hiding behind the moniker, 'PuppyKiller'.” I have talked to a number of newsrooms that are tired of readers not being accountable for their comments. If they are willing to put their real name behind their talkback, discussions will be more valuable.
Right or wrong, this move has touched off a firestorm. As of this writing, the thread where they announced this change has had more than 49,000 responses. Almost all of them outraged over the loss of privacy. Many in the thread are threatening to cancel their subscription or announcing they already have. While Blizzard will never release actual subscriber churn numbers, the impact is severe. Customer Support operators at Blizzard have had their home address, cell phone numbers and children's names published with words encouraging other players to “show them what terrorists can do with your real information.”
The idea that we can be anonymous on the Internet is addictive. People can behave the way their lizard brain demands. Take that away and the physical response is the same as closing all the bars and liquor stores during Mardi Gras. Someone is going to get hurt.
So Blizzard and News outlets are now seeing some real data come out of this experiment. They now must make a decision to force these people to come out of the shadows and declare who they are (and all the lost business that comes with that choice), or cave in to the screaming masses and continue to allow anonymity on their forums. Of course the next question that will be answered if Blizzard sticks by their guns: Will the bright light of real names make the trolls go back to the bridges from whence they came?
While Blizzard is hardly a similar business to your news organization, keep your eyes on how this plays out. The results here may go a long way to helping you make the decision if you can weather the storm of pulling the trigger on real name comments.