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Not All Opinions Are Equal

It seems to be a common idea by non-bloggers that the comment they enter on a blog is somehow special and should be taken seriously by the author of the blog (everyone is a legend in their own mind). In a recent discussion one anonymous commentator seemed offended that I didn’t take his comments seriously and didn’t understand why I would take little notice of an anonymous comment while taking note of a later comment on the same issue by the author of the project in question.

In most forums (and I use the term in the broadest way) an anonymous comment is taken with a weight that is close to zero. That doesn’t mean that it will be ignored, it just means that the requirement for providing supporting evidence or of having a special insight and explaining it is much greater.

One example of this is the comment weighting system used by Slashdot.org (AKA “/.”). The /. FAQ has a question “Why should I log in?” with the answer including “Posting in Discussions at Score:1 instead of Score:0 means twice as many people will see your comments” [1]. /. uses the term “Anonymous Coward” as the identification of users who are not logged in, this gives an idea of how they are regarded.

Advogato uses a rating method for blog posts which shows you only posts from blogs that you directly rank well or which match the trust metric (based on rankings of people you rank) [2].

I believe that the automated systems developed by /. and other online forums emulate to a some extent the practices that occur off-line. For any discussion in a public place a comment from someone who does not introduce themself (or gives an introduction that gives no reason to expect quality) will be treated with much less weight than one from someone who is known. When someone makes a comment their background will be considered by people who hear it. If a comment is entirely a matter of opinion and can not be substantiated by facts and logical analysis then the acceptance of the comment is solely based on the background of the author (and little things like spelling errors can count against the author).

Therefore if you want your blog comments to be considered by blog authors and readers you need to make sure that you are known. Using your full name is one way of not being as anonymous but most names are not unique on the Internet (I’ve previously described some ways of ensuring that you beat other people with the same name in Google rankings [3]). The person who owns the blog can use the email address that is associated with the comment to identify the author (if it’s a real email address and it’s known by Google). But for other readers the only option is the “Website” field. The most common practice is to use the “Website” field in the comment to store the URL of your blog (most blog comments are written by bloggers). But there is nothing stopping you from using any other URL, if you are not a blogger and want to write comments on blogs you could create a personal web page to use for the comments. If the web page you use for such purposes gives links to references as to your relevant experience then that would help. Someone who has skills in several areas could create a web page for each one and reference the appropriate page in their comment.

One problem we face is that it is very easy to lie on the net. There is no technical obstacle to impersonation on the net, while I haven’t seen any evidence of people impersonating others in an attempt to add credibility to blog comments I expect it’s only a matter of time before that happens (I expect that people do it already but the evidence of them getting caught has not been published anywhere that I’ve read). People often claim university education to add weight to their comments (usually in email but sometimes in blog comments too). One problem with this is that anyone could falsely claim to have a university degree and no-one could disprove their claim without unreasonable effort, another is that a university degree actually doesn’t mean much (lots of people remain stupid after graduating). One way in which adding a URL to a comment adds weight is that for a small web site the author will check a reasonable portion of the sites that link to them, so if someone impersonates me and has a link to my web site in the comment then there’s a good chance that I will notice this.

OpenID [4] has the potential to alleviate this by making it more difficult to forge an association with a web site. One thing that I am working on is enabling OpenID on all the web sites that are directly associated with me. I plan to use a hardware device to authenticate myself with the OpenID server (so I can securely enter blog comments from any location). I expect that it will become the standard practice that comments will not be accepted by most blogs if they are associated with a URL that is OpenID enabled unless the author of the comment authenticates themself via OpenID.

Even when we get OpenID enabled everywhere there is still the issue of domain specific expertise. While I am well enough known for my work on SE Linux that most people will accept comments about it simply because I wrote them, the same can not be said for most topics that I write about. When writing about topics where I am not likely to be accepted as an expert I try and substantiate my main points with external web pages. Comments are likely to be regarded as spam if they have too many links so it seems best to only use one link per comment – which therefore has to be on an issue that is important to the conclusion and which might be doubted if evidence was not provided. The other thing that is needed is a reasonable chain of deduction. Simply stating your opinion means little, listing a series of logical steps that led you to the opinion and are based on provable facts will hold more weight.

These issues are not only restricted to blog comments, I believe that they apply (to differing degrees) to all areas of online discussion.

6 comments to Not All Opinions Are Equal

  • G’day Russel!

    Thank you so much for this article. I have linked to it on the contact page of my personal personal site: http://behindthescenes.kristy.id.au/ as further reading as to why I do not allow anonymous comments. (Doing this has certainly removed most of the weeds from my bed!)

    Cheers!

  • etbe

    Kristy: I’m glad you found it useful. It was not my intention to encourage people to refuse anonymous comments, although I understand why they do.

  • AlphaG

    Anonymous comments = free software, no intrinsic value as you got it for nothing

  • etbe

    AlphaG: Proprietary software has no intrinsic value as recent EULAs tend to prohibit resale, and in any case when the new version gets released no-one will want the old version.

    As for getting comments for nothing, regardless of how much you know about the author they are still free. Also as I noted in the section about domain specific expertise, it is possible to be known as an expert in one area while not being known as an expert in others (in fact some people are known for being an expert in one field and a jackass in others). ;)

    Incidentally in case you didn’t realise, you are anonymous. Your email address does not match a google search (I won’t reveal email addresses related to blog comments but I do a google search on people who comment) and from a quick scan none of the top 10 google search results for “AlphaG” seem to match with what you are writing on my blog. An anonymous identity used serially in one place remains anonymous. If you were to get a blog with the same name and link to it in future comments then your anonymity would be reduced.

    Your comments are of better quality than the average. So in my estimation of comment quality, a comment from you gets more weight than other anonymous people based on your track record in my blog.

  • Excellent post. It is interesting to note that while some sites are requiring people to login with verified identities (see http://Ma.gnolia.com) some people are refusing to comment unless the site accepts OpenID (http://twurl.cc/4sx)

    There is an excellent description of everything that goes into someone’s identity (beyond OpenID), including mediating trust, here: http://blogs.oracle.com/talkingidentity/2008/05/05

    OpenID is really meant to be the authentication layer in the identity stack. There have been attempts for creating reputation, sites like Jyte use cred points, but no one has hit a home run yet. It will be good times when we can have a truly portable identity that includes reputation.

    Cheer,
    Kevin

  • etbe

    http://www.anotherblogger.com/2008/04/24/taking-a-stand-openid/
    Kevin: That’s an interesting post about only commenting via OpenID (I’ve included the full URL above as I prefer to avoid tinyurl services as much as possible).

    Reputation is difficult to measure unless there are only a small number of hops. Advogato seems to have the most functional system (not that it’s great, but it is working and has the data). However most people don’t pay much attention to it.