Two-Sided Coin of Digital Courage and Facebook Comments

Last week Facebook released an update to its Comments plugin that brought several features, which have already found their way on major sites including TechCrunch, Redbook and The Examiner.

To make sure we’re on the same page, a quick run-down of the features for users includes:

  • Users logged into Facebook are able to link their comments to their Facebook profiles while bringing in key information like mutual friends, work title, age and where they currently live to add more context.
  • The ability to display comments from friends and friends of friends or the most-Liked comments at the top, meaning more relevant comments for the user are front-and-center.
  • Sharing to Facebook is easier as users can choose to display their comments on a web page on their profiles as well.

Page Administrators also have a few new capabilities, including: 

  • Page administrators for brands and organizations can comment as their Facebook Page, instead of using their personal profiles.
  • Page administrators can sync comments on their site to their Facebook Page and vice versa.
  • Admins can create a blacklist of keywords and users, which allows them to control comment visibility.

There are pros and cons to this. For example, brand websites can implement a commenting platform that users are already comfortable with seeing because they see it on Facebook every day, which means fewer barriers to comment. However, implementing the plugin in your site comes with the down-side of giving Facebook ownership of comments made there, which is something brands will need to make a decision on.

My Dilemma with Facebook Comments...

Facebook has essentially brought commenting to the mainstream. People understand Facebook, and they're comfortable with it, which means they might not think twice when it comes to commenting on a post, making the behavior of commenting even more mainstream.

Still, the plugin has the potential to stifle the digital courage that has made the web the best place for frankness and unhindered opinion-sharing because it requires users to link their comments to Facebook, which means anonymity is sacrificed.

This leads to two competing arguments.

Digital Anonymity Should Be Protected.

Part of what has made the web, social media and online publishing platforms great is the empowerment they have given consumers. The digital courage that comes from anonymity has allowed us to share our thoughts and opinions without fear of reprisal, creating a dynamic, albeit sometimes disappointing, marketplace of ideas.

The requirement to link comments with our Facebook accounts creates a chilling effect. Commenters will think twice about sharing their ideas if they can't be anonymous, which they may have several reasons for doing. Some ideas are half-baked, so they may not want to look foolish. While others may be sharing information for the good of the public but is confidential.

Finally, believe it or not, everyone isn't on Facebook. Sure, a lot of people are, but a lot of people isn't the same as everyone. Now, some websites have created a pre-requisite to be a Facebook user to comment. This seems to stifle the dynamic idea-sharing nature that the web has brought.

Transparency Should Be Valued.

The implementation of Facebook's Comments plugin brings something the web often doesn't have enough of—transparency. Comments are linked to one's personal identity on Facebook.

Knowing where all comments come from and from whom creates full transparency as someone's reason for commenting will be apparent. Companies won't be able to post negative comments to positive posts about competitors. Schilling will be obvious and phased out. Trolls won't be able to get away with attempts to start flame wars.

Perhaps, the biggest benefit is the creation of a more valuable marketplace of ideas. Comments will come with context. Who made the comments and why will make agendas clear and provide a better understanding of where a comment is coming from. This also means people will think twice before posting their thoughts, meaning fewer, but richer ideas.

It's a Balancing Act.

I'm not convinced that one way is the right answer. It shouldn't be all or nothing for brands or their site visitors. Whether you use Facebook Comments, Disqus or some other commenting platform, there should be a balance of anonymity and transparency. 

Options are the only way to offer this balance. One solution is automatically displaying any posts that are made using Facebook Comments or another tool that links the comments with a real identity, while putting comments made anonymously through a moderation process before they are posted. This allows those confident in their thoughts to post, while those who wish to maintain their digital anonymity to share their thoughts, which will make their way to the comments of the post once they’ve been validated.