Dec 5, 2010

Anonymous comments? Yes, of course

Requiring ID has no legit purpose, stifles the convo

An old school trick, uncovered by new school media

An incoming email questioned the policy here, as well as on most similar forums, of accepting and publishing user comments that are offered anonymously; that is without requiring the inclusion of a 'real name' that can (conceivably) be verified prior to hitting the Accept Comment button on any given blog or info portal.

The answer is simple: because a "No Anonymous Comments' policy represents an outdated and unacceptable Old Media philosophy that discourages community participation and dialog while offering no countering benefit for its being in place.

The prior journalism model was this: the broadcast-style media elite in any given niche or local community acted as the gatekeepers of information. In the print media world (the most powerful media type because of its written word format and historical head start), this meant that the news flow was pushed from their end by their hand picked proctors (reporters and wire feeds) for mostly passive consumption by the readership.

The exception to that passive aspect is the Letters to the Editor (or guest commentary, etc) submissions. But early on, the near-universal policy across the print media industry was to refuse publication, based on a number of prerequisites including word length, grammar, style and personal identification of the author.

But whereas the length requirement had its basis with the limited space/inventory justification, the other three were for a more worrisome objective: to keep the conversation nice and polite and not to upset either the newspaper's alleged presentation standards of the reputation of its cherished nor its allied community partners, namely the local (or niche) power brokers and businesses. After all, they would tend to get squirrel'y when a food fight breaks out on the editorial page and the messy fingers and potty mouths are pointing at one of them. And when things get squirrel'y, the offended party is less likely to reward the entity which hosted the beat-down. That's right, we're talking advertising dollars. But if the offensive party is clearly ID'd, then the finger can be diverted into a different direction; but not so with an anonymous opinion.

So, yes, it IS about control. A noisy and chaotic mess does not a good community make; at least in the eyes of a profit-motivated entity that benefits when everyone plays nice. There can be no doubt that we all play a whole lot nicer when our personal brand and identity is front and center than we do with a cloak of anonymity. That's why the Catholics confess behind a curtain.

Right off the bat, though, we have discrimination. The “keep it short” notice prevents long winded types that have a whole lot to say on complicated matters from participating. Likewise, those who can't put coherent sentences together are locked out, as are the passionate ones who tend to pepper their arguments with words such as goddam, fucking, shithead and others. They can't play, because they can't behave properly.

Nor can those who desire to remain anonymous, or unknown to the public (or even to the gatekeepers). This is where the most damage is done, in that some of the most potential valuable and important contributions to the community dialog are stopped from being entered into the record. People desire to remain anonymous because they each have a good reason for it. Can there be any doubt that expressing a negative opinion on the Mayor might put you in a bad spot if you lived next door to him or your kids played together or if you worked for him? Now don't you think that someone in any of those three settings might have a pretty good read on said Mayor?

Besides, the logic of attaching a name to an opinion seems to be absent. If someone submitted it, that means it came from a human – unless you think it might have been done by an algorithm; but even then one could argue that the algorithm was created by a human. If it came from a someone, then we could also conclude that it expressed their view of a matter. Isn't that the ultimate purpose; gathering opinions from humans? What else do we gain by ID'ing the author?

Some would argue that we may gain insight into motivation with that knowledge. “Oh, that's cranky pants Joe, he's been pissed off ever since his wife ran off with the City Hall janitor.” But motivation should not be on our radar. The fact is that there's a member of the community out there with an opinion of X and that opinion is not being expressed unless it is with the cloak of anonymity. Not granting that privilege doesn't make the opinion disappear; it is still there. In that case, it is better for it to be heard than not.

Old Media blowhards will counter with “a Letter to the Editor can also be granted anonymity, if requested.” The bluff-calling here would be that such a process still involves the initial submission of a verified personal identity, which to some degree defeats the purpose. Plus, we can always point to the abuse of such a scenario, such as when the local daily The Saratogian publicly outed (possibly mistakenly, possibly not) a critic from a competing blog that had jumped thru these hoops. That critic/competitor has since disappeared from the scene.

Note: to their credit, many newspapers allow anonymously penned comments within their online properties. Most of them, however, do not have a similar policy in place for their legacy / print editions.)

The Bottom Line

The world has changed, the power has shifted. Information – including personal opinions – flow more freely in the modern (new) media landscape. The old barriers, as dictated by the old power brokers and opinion shapers, have either disappeared (ex: limited space) or have been rendered moot (ex: many blogs do not have the need to placate third parties as part of their survival).

In turn, the requirement of personally identifying any and all contributors to the public discussion serves no positive purpose in the current dynamic; in fact, it acts to suppress the worthy goal of providing the infrastructure and framework of maximizing that discussion.

The Nanoburgh Policy

Keep on topic and avoid making unsubstantiated claims that would be deemed as potentially libelous from our end. Examples:

OK: Whoever believes this is an idiot. (Opinion)
OK: Joe is an idiot, period. (Another opinion)
NOT OK: Joe Smith likes little boys. (Unsubstantiated, possibly libelous)
OK: Joe Smith likes little boys; he just got convicted for it. (Fact, if verified)


Herbie said...


Glad to find this blog said...

All I could think of with this post was the old-white-men approach of the Times Union. TU is an uptight school marm with no sophistication.

Since the uproar over Ding Dong Ditch the TU decided the blogs can only allow complete agreement with the writer, see K. Gustafason in particular, or the Bethlehem Blog "Pregnant and Dating" gal.
Just try to engage or disagree with one, cannot be done. The blogs are just vanity columns.

Thanks for this post. Unusually with it for the Capital Region. Maybe there's hope for us.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis of a business profiting from keeping everything polite and non controversial.

Anonymous said...

Layup with no foul.

tommy toga said...

u think the tu blogs are fluff, take a look at that pos the saratogian.

the dap ling said...

you're killing us
where's the girly pix
what kind of blog is this?


heineken? pabst blue ribbon!

zen trickster said...

I couldn;t have said it better, except I have no idea what you're talking about.