A Twitter discussion I glimpsed Sunday – and follow-up blog post and discussion about it from Steve Buttry – has had me thinking a lot about anonymous commenting on news sites yesterday. Of course, a lot of that also comes from the fact that I returned from a week-long furlough to moderate comments on the morning after the health care reform bill passed (I don’t know what the mood is like where you are, dear reader, but it’s pretty heated here in Southwest Ohio).

As I’ve written here before, it is part of my job to navigate the waters of Cincinnati.Com’s article and blog comments to determine what should stay and what gets removed as per our terms of service. Back in 2008, I helped set up the site’s comment system, wrote our discussion guidelines and laid the groundwork for how comments would be moderated. The process has evolved and grown to keep up with what we’ve learned from interacting with and watching our community members – and it’s given me a unique perspective on anonymity and commenting.

Of all the comments I’ve removed and all the users I’ve had to block from our sites, I’ve learned a few things that have led me to believe that anonymity doesn’t really matter at all. Here’s why:

1. Most users who have had comments removed do not believe their comment was racist/homophobic/libelous/spam – and they would see no problem posting that comment again (and again) under their real names.

2. Most users who have comments removed or are kicked off the site have no problem contacting staff by phone or email to complain, thus dropping their anonymity in most cases. Aside: The tops is when they use a work email address to defend their statements about how “X race is too lazy to work”. Hilarity.

3. Banned or unverified users will find a way to post what they want to post. Whether it is creating a fake Facebook/OpenID¬†identity, a new IP address, dozens of Hotmail addresses, cleaned cookies – they’ll do it to get around a login system. There are about five users I have kicked off our site dozens of times – and there’s seemingly nothing I can do to get them to go away permanently. One even went so far as to tell me, “Do what you want. I have nothing but time on my hands – and you don’t.”

On the flip side, I am a longtime member of a message board that has very few of these problems. The site’s thousands of users know and respect one another for the most part, conversations stay on-topic and free of hate speech and I rarely see users or comments removed. What’s their secret? Constant moderator interaction.

A moderator is always online -and there is an indication of this that shows up on the forum. The moderator regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed. It’s not uncommon to see a gentle “Hey guys let’s try to get this back on topic” or “I had to remove a few posts that got pretty heated, try to keep it civil, folks”. Sometimes the moderators don’t even have to do this. Other members will band together to fight off a troll – or defend a friend they feel was wronged. This sense of community derives from the understanding that there’s safety and support supplied by that moderator presence.

Contrast this with the moderator involvement on most news sites. Most users don’t even know a staffer was reading their comments until they are removed. Chances are most users don’t know a site’s moderators until they get a warning. We all know what the solution is, but our paper – and most other sites like ours – is not able to put that amount of manpower into moderation. Community interaction is not a top-level priority to most news outlets – and that’s the real problem.

We as an industry like to collectively wring our hands about the toxicity of online comment boards, but if we really want to improve the quality of on-site discussion we need to be willing to get involved in our sites in a hands-on manner. No amount of word filters, comment-detecting robots and user-end moderation will replace the presence of a dutiful moderator (and that, unfortunately, requires money).