Large parts of this post are much less relevant since we implemented registration for commentors. If you are administrators of your own blogs, you may still find it educational. The point remains to distinguish between pseudonyms as long-term net aliases and pseudonyms used vexatiously and maliciously. Only the first kind of pseudonym is welcome here.
I wish to address an issue that has come up several times over the last few months: comments being submitted with a fake email address in the comments ID field and thus, in accordance with the clear statements in our Commenting Guidelines, being declined for publication. In future I will be simply able to point to this post instead of having to repeatedly make my position clear.
Mostly such comments are overt trolling or abuse, with “stealthed” false addresses, and as such are deleted without a moment’s further consideration or later regret. But what prompts this post is that sometimes there have been substantive comments submitted, with openly false-as-an-obvious-statement addresses i.e. there is no attempt at deceit on the part of the submitting commentor. Declining to publish such comments does cause regret, because these comments have something to offer to the discussion at hand (the comments in question have varied in viewpoint from supportive to oppositional), but there is a principle at stake regarding netiquette and how one interacts both with other commentors and with forum administrators, on blogs and elsewhere.
Now, I want to be clear here what I mean by a valid email address: it’s any email address that will actually send and receive mail. It does not need to be the submitter’s private home email address, or their workplace email address, or contain any personally-identifying data such as a real name i.e. obviously false user-names using web-mail addresses are perfectly acceptable as long as we can send mail to the supplied email address and get a reply.
There is no objection here whatsoever to pseudonyms, either in the comments name field or in supplying an email address with a pseudonym as a user-name. Pseudonyms are an important safety measure for online interaction in protecting oneself (and one’s family) from malice/intimidation etc expanding off-line, which is why I use a pseudonym myself. Pseudonyms also allow for playful interaction: the adoption of a rhetorical or satirical persona as a form of recreation or performance art has been part of the fun of discussions online since the days of newsgroups and dial-up bulletin boards, and when done in a spirit of fun and goodwill is part of the appeal of many online communities.
Although we encourage people to use a consistent pseudonym for the sake of continuity and credibility (a consistent pseudonym becomes an alias: an acknowledged alternative name), there is no objection here to commentors changing their pseudonyms and/or pseudonymous email addresses as often as they like, or using more than one pseudonymous identity to comment here (as long as they’re not sockpuppeting or morphing in an attempt to circumvent killfiles). Just don’t be a twerp about it.
So, that out of the way, let’s get back to supplying those pesky valid email addresses and the principle involved in our declining to publish commentors who refuse to supply a valid email address in the comments ID field. As it says in our Guidelines, the main purpose of requiring a valid email address is so that the moderators can contact commentors who have submitted a comment that is being held in moderation and discuss whether that comment can be modified to be acceptable for publication. If a valid email address is not supplied, then the only way to contact the moderated comments’ authors is to make some sort of statement on the blog. In exceptional cases I have done this, and I have now had more than one such commentor subsequently email me using our Contact Form saying (paraphrased) “here’s my email address, I always use a consistent false address associated with this consistent user-name to comment on all blogs, now please publish my comment(s) but I still don’t want to actually input my valid email address in the Comments Submission field, because I have [list of reasons] to protect my identity”.
So far, every single one of the moderated commentors who has responded thus has used a third-party email service (webmail provider or remailer), thus effectively protecting their identity anyway. I can tell more about them from their IP address (which is automatically recorded as soon as they submit a comment) than I can deduce from a third-party email address using a first name only (and most people and many workplaces are using ISPs who use dynamic ranges of IP addresses anyway, so the information that can be deduced from that number is quite limited). So what added level of security do they imagine they derive from refusing to submit their third-party email address in the comments ID field?
Commentors’ supplied email addresses are never displayed on the blog, nor are they indirectly shared through being visible in the source-code of the page, so they cannot be harvested by spammers. The only place that the email address is recorded is in the administrative database of our WordPress blog software (most other blog platforms do the same), which cannot be accessed by anyone except the blog authors. Having this information in the admin database allows a moderator to immediately see which email address is associated with any particular comment and send an email to that commentor with one click. This information hierarchy is clear and simple for a blog administrator to navigate. The only way for anyone else to read it is if the entire blog database is hacked, which while not impossible is not that likely. Even if the blog were hacked, if you are using a third-party email address which doesn’t indicate your real identity then what’s the problem? Is any J.Q. Average net-stalker going to hack gmail or yahoo or whatever, do ya think?
By asking a moderator to accept a separate source of information about an email address associated with a particular commentor-name, such commentors are in effect asking the moderator to create and maintain a separate database, manually, in addition to the automatic database produced by the blog software (which will then contain misleading duplicate data in the form of the false email address) just for some imagined extra layer of blog security. If a moderator wants to contact one of these commentors about any particular comment, they will have to go to this separate database, find the appropriate email address, and copy it to their mail software to send that email.
That is not a minor request, and I won’t do it. I have a perfectly good database sitting right there in my blog admin interface, and I see no reason to inefficiently generate a modified version of it just to cater for the irrationally nervous. I am the host of the discussions on this blog, and I expect my guests to show some basic courtesy when they enter my patch of cyberspace. I need a way to communicate with my blog-guests in case of breaches of netiquette, and I shouldn’t have to be expected to jump through hoops in order to do so.
N. B. I currently have 5 comments in moderation from one such commentor. There is a separate issue with respect to hir comments regarding the “excessively frequent comments on a single thread silences other commentors” standard, but if sie wishes to redraft those comments for brevity and combine them into just one or two posts, and then resubmit them using a valid email address, then those comments will be published. If sie wishes to choose just one or two of the comments currently in the moderation queue, and will give me permission to edit the previously supplied false email address to replace it with hir valid email address, then those comments will be published.