"Real name" comments on news websites - the up and the downside
Aside from the paywall, one of the interesting things about the new Times and Sunday Times sites is the insistence that comments have to be left using real names. At the same time, The Independent has revamped their comment system, and also appears to asking for real life identities.
Actually, the two are doing something slightly different.
By relying on OAuth social registration, The Independent has pushed back the burden for protecting them against sock-puppetry onto Twitter, Facebook et al. It isn't that you can't create a false identity on these services, but you can be pretty sure that the software engineering man hours being devoted to defend against spammy registration by these companies is way more than The Indy could manage. Indeed, given the problem the site has suffered with spam, it is obvious that community moderation is severely stretched at the paper.
The Times and Sunday Times have a distinct advantage over anybody else trying to verify real life identities in the news space. They are (or will be) taking payment. You can fake a Twitter account without much effort - it is a lot harder to fake an identity that can also manage to cough up the £1 daily entrance fee to The Times community areas. For that reason alone, I suspect that it will be easier for the News International titles to make this work and get the users to stick to it.
One of the arguments for making people use their real identity is that they will (hopefully) behave better online. You can see why it makes for an attractive argument for trying to drive up the quality of debate and discussion on a news website. There is definitely an editorial downside to forcing all commenters to use real names though.
Would, for example, an article about the current debate about anonymity for those accused of rape attract powerful contributions to the debate like this, if the commenter had to use their real Facebook identity instead of 'gherkingirl'?
"I was raped by someone with a rich powerful politically connected relative and I was terrified to report for fear of it getting into the papers and being accused of slandering the family. It took 3 months to pluck up the courage to do so, by which time the forensice evidence was gone. Despite my attacker confessing multiple attacks to me, he wasn't even formally questioned and remains free to attack at will, no doubt bolstered by the feeling of 'having got away with it'. If I had been confident that the details wouldn't have got into the press, I would have reported immediately and who knows? He might have been punished and I would have been saved some of the extra stress and fear I suffered."