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Was 2013 the Year Anonymity Died on the Internet?

Even without all the revelations of digital government spying coming out of leaked documents from Edward Snowden, 2013 will likely go down in the books as a tipping point away from the old online adage: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

This week, after hinting at it earlier this year, the online behemoth Huffington Post turned off anonymous user comments. Now, unless you apply for a special exception, your comments will be tied to your Facebook identity. (There’s a whole other discussion about Facebook names not being verified, but the idea is most people won’t go through the trouble of creating a whole new fake account, and it will at least make you stop and think for a minute — unless of course your username and avatars on the Internet are actually your dog because some people are into that.)

Aside from Huffington Post, other major players took a step away from online trolls this year. YouTube, home of perhaps one of the most notorious spam and vitriol-filled comment sections, moved toward an identity-based (aka: Google+) user-relevant comment section in November. Popular Science dropped comments altogether in September!

Many other news publishers jumped on the no-anonymous-commenting train that had started to gain steam in recent years this year. Already some big publishers, like Gannett, made the switch away from free-for-all comment section to those tied to social media accounts, which in theory are less anonymous. But this year even smaller communities, such as Gwinnett, Ga., and other bigger papers, such as the Sacramento Bee, made the switch.

That’s not to say there isn’t a case to be made for anonymity, but as anyone who has published anything on the Internet or had anything about them published on the Internet can attest, sometimes people are are just mean for the sake of being mean. Even with their names attached, people are still inexplicably cruel sometimes, but at least they do it publicly. In general, on news sites where comments are now tied to identities, it does seem to have elevated, if only somewhat, the level of discourse. That’s important because those comments can actually influence how people feel about the stories they read.

To be sure, other publishers have tried various methods to tame trolling comments without dropping them altogether or outing commenters’ identities. UC Berkeley has a good summary of some of the ideas and milestones in news site comment section adaptation.

What do you think? Have we reached the tipping point at which some day our kids or kids’ kids will look back on early online comments sections with awe in the same way we now marvel that the Internet used to move at 14kbps and basic computers once took up a whole room?

Tell us in the comments below, where yeah, for now, you don’t have to actually use your real name — but you probably shouldn’t be a jerk anyway.

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