Of course, if newspaper paywalls don’t turn out to work outside the existing niches such as the Financial Times, their impact on general online commenting habits will be very limited. But let’s assume for a moment that paywalls work well enough to spread across various newspaper and other sites.
A core feature of paywalls is that in order to get in someone has to pay via authenticated electronic means – and so for nearly everyone the website knows who they really are. Anonymous payments or carefully constructed alias payment accounts are theoretically feasible but the practical reality is that nearly everyone will be who they say they are.
In that sense paywalls are similar to social networks such as Facebook. On Facebook it’s easier to fake who you are, but again nearly everyone is who they say they are. In the case of social networks such as Facebook the terms and conditions help bring that about, though the predominant factor is that to get the most out of them you need to reveal your real identity. Faking who you are can provide a bit of fun or the opportunity to create a gotcha moment, but it isn’t really compatible with making use of their mainstream services.
A widespread assumption (which I share) is that people’s behaviour in comments threads is higher if they are commenting under their real name. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence I’ve come across which bolsters this, even though I’ve not come across any systematic analysis which proofs or rejects the point in a more rigorous manner.
A good example of this is the contrast between comments on political posts or notes on Facebook compared with those on newspaper sites where anonymity or pseudonyms reign. The former comments are often of a much higher quality.
Removing or restricting anonymity comes with drawbacks (as Martin Belam has pointed out) but overall we could be about to see a big change in the quality of online debate in comments threads, which in turn will raise questions for how politicians and corporates should view those comment threads. At the moment, it is pretty rare to see an MP or a CEO take part in such threads. Perhaps that will change?