Standard practise in the “replies,” “comments,” or “discussion” portion of weblogs is to allow anyone to comment about anything, and to, without proof of identity, enter a name, email and sometimes a website address to attach to their comment.
While there are some systems that require readers to register, sometimes with an emailed password to verify the email address they enter, this is rare, and thought, I think, to be too much of an impediment to free-flowing discussion.
The result of this free-form approach to identity is that it’s impossible to know who is commenting about what. That many readers favour using pseudonyms, or short forms of their names, exacerbates this problem.
Take this thread of discussion about a recent post here: there are comments from “blair,” from me (or at least someone claiming to be me; I happen to know it was me), two from “Rob L.” and one from “Brian.”
Because I give readers the option of not having their email address (approximately 2/3 of commenters choose this option), often all the reader of comments knows is the “handle” the writer used. And there’s no assurance that even the same handle always identifies the same person.
Indeed there was an issue that arose here last year where comments from one reader were subsequently read by another reader, with the same first name and last initial. This person took umbrage, feeling that if the comments were seen to have come from him, he would suffer harm.
Mistaken (or hijacked) identity is only one of several ramifications of this situation: not knowing, with any certainty, who is the writer of commentary diminishes their authority, strips them of context, and makes for confusing lines of responsibility.
Another example: if an anonymous person, using a pseudonym, writes a comment here that defames someone, who is ultimately responsible? My first reaction is that everyone owns, and is responsible for, their own words. But what if the writer can’t be identified, either publically or privately?
What, if anything, should we do about this?