Own your words

In my last column, Rebooting Web Comments: Wire Them to Personal Clouds, I imagined an alternative architecture for web comments based on syndication from personal clouds. Unfortunately I led with a remark made by an acquaintance who's fed up with the poor quality of discussion on a community blog, and who thinks anonymity and pseudonymity are part of the problem. I agree. But were I czar of the Net (were such a thing even possible) I wouldn't require use of verified identities. Rather I'd want to ensure that everyone, identified or not, can own and control their online speech. That means:

- Your data lives in a personal cloud that you trust

- It syndicates into other contexts as and when you authorize those contexts to display them

- You can search across data you've syndicated to many different contexts

- You can audit access to your data from those contexts

- You can assure longevity of your data beyond what those contexts are willing to guarantee

Scientists, I suggested, are among the likely early adopters because they're in a Catch-22 situation. Science needs free-flowing online discourse, and the Polymath Project shows what that can accomplish, but blog comments -- even when they're pivotal to the advancement of science -- aren't first-class artifacts in the scientific record and can't reliably accrue to scientific reputations.

In the long run many of us will benefit from an architecture that enables us to control assets we currently scatter among a hodge-podge of services that offer us little or no control over our own stuff. Such ownership will, by definition, be bound to some persistent identity. And most people who hope to use their online personas to extend their influence in the real world will want those identities to correspond to real-world identities.

Nothing can, or should, require that correspondence. It's a choice. And we need architectures that support that choice. A great example from the turn of the millenium was Groove, Ray Ozzie's post-Lotus Notes reboot of online collaboration in shared spaces. In Groove I could establish one identity as Jon Udell and another Bork The Indestructible. The cryptographic walls separating these identities were airtight. Nothing happening in Jon Udell's spaces could ever leak into Bork The Indestructible's, or vice versa, unless I wanted it to. But everything in those separate compartments was under my control. I could search it, archive it, audit it. That's how things ought to be.

Given that architecture, though, I think that uses of Jon Udell-like identities will vastly outweigh uses of Bork The Indestructible-like identities. Not everyone agrees. A civil disagreement came from Daniel Ha, CEO of Disqus, the service you could (but probably won't) use to comment on this article. In Anonymity Isn't the Problem with Web Comments he wrote:

A whopping 65% of commenters online use pseudonyms. The average commenter using a pseudonym contributed nearly 7x more than an anonymous contributor and nearly 5x more than a commenter identifying with Facebook. One big misperception is that pseudonyms are used primarily in a defensive mode where people have things to hide. Instead, users have spoken and it's clear that pseudonymity facilities more discussion, not less.

I'm sure there's more pseudonymous discussion. I'm not so sure that quantity is the right measure of its value. But that's just a personal preference. I would rather use a real identity and interact with others who do the same. The incivil responses to my last column reminded me why. Here's some of the blowback on Twitter. And here's the post that one of my Twitter correspondents, @x7o, uploaded to Pastebin -- ironically because it was too much hassle to fabricate a throwaway Disqus account. Some excerpts:

Udell says that anonymity is "necessary" in a small number of limit cases: "whistleblowers, political dissidents and victims of abuse." Once he has broken the internet, once it is impossible to join a single important internet community without authing, how is anonymity going to be available in these limit cases? Who is going to decide who gets to be a political dissident?

All of this, for Jon Udell, is to make it so that people "think twice about that nasty or petty comment." A massive fuck you to Jon Udell, folks. Nasty and petty comments are not a good enough reason to break the internet.


Jon Udell should realize the closet authoritarianism his position on this represents. He would significantly worsen our de facto liberties in order to save overly sensitive people the trouble of having to read rude things on the internet. The alternative is that we can all grow up and get over it, and stop being so fucking sensitive.

I followed @x7o on Twitter, along with everyone else who flamed me, and linked to @x7o's Pastebin post. Here was @x7o's response:

@judell Hah, alright. Fair play for reading, and I retract most of the massive fuck you.

The downshift to a minor fuck you isn't the best argument for pseudonymous discourse. But that's really beside the point, which is that Pastebin is a poor substitute for a personal cloud that would enable @x7o to be the authoritative source for data that can syndicate into any online context.