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June 2, 2010

Rethinking Online Anonymity

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In the brave new world of Internet publishing, most news and commentary websites that finally embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments are now starting to rethink and debate whether or not the great Democracy-experiment in free speech has worked, or if it is worth the effort in light of the Pandora’s Box it opened.


In a particularly poignant piece, “Disturbing, anonymous online comments driving discussion on changing the rules,” written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which appeared in The St. Petersburg Times last month; she spoke for many when she wrote:


“What confounds me is why online commenters are so gratuitously nasty; why, when given the opportunity to have an educated disagreement with an author or other readers, they use the space allotted to spew venom instead of presenting a well-reasoned argument…”


Ms. Brodesser-Akner remarked that “online anonymity is something that others seem concerned about as well…”


Connie Schultz, a columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “sharply criticized the practice of newspaper websites to allow anonymous comments, saying in an online piece in late March:


“Maybe that's the foolish optimist in me, but I want to believe that we will finally admit — to ourselves and to the public at large — that allowing people to hide behind anonymity has not been good for our industry, our culture or our country.”


Not lost in the debate over the practice and administration of anonymous comments is the not-too-small complication of newsroom staffing cutbacks with many news organizations.


Small news and commentary web outlets simply do not have the staffing made necessary by the eruption of lewd, foul, vulgar invectives that quickly found its way onto the web pages under the shield of anonymity.


In light of the innocence and naïveté that pervaded the Internet in its infancy, many were taken aback to discover that as more trolls gained access to the web, the filth that followed was the inevitable result when small minded and petty people are shielded by the anonymity.


It is a very sad commentary on the times in which we live. Many envisioned a comment policy that resembled most standard Letters to the Editor practices. “Newspapers won't print a letter without identifying the writer. (Most will call or email the writer to verify the writer's identity.) Why should online comments be held to a different (lower) standard?,” noted Bruce Maiman last month in


A recent New York Times’ commentary by Richard Pérez-Peña on April 11 continues to reverberate across cyberspace, “News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments.”


Mr. Pérez-Peña observed: “But now, that idea… the near-universal assumption … that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous… is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites…


“A few news organizations, including The Times, have someone review every comment before it goes online, to weed out personal attacks and bigoted comments…”


Even The Huffington Post – which quickly gathered the lion’s share of unpleasant filthy commentary that added nothing but whale waste to a particular topic – “soon will announce changes, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing…


“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”


At first many websites were enamored with the idea that facilitating anonymous comments would bring in additional revenue by attracting the additional hits on the site. Most advertisers are willing to pay a premium for advertisements on websites that generate high traffic numbers.


However, this has not come to fruition. William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school, explained in The New York Times:


“… (A) lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher,” he said. “People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown.”


Furthermore, “He said news organizations were willing to reconsider anonymity in part because comment pages brought in little revenue; advertisers generally do not like to buy space next to opinions, especially incendiary ones.”


The Times’ noted that Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald columnist, wrote recently that anonymity has made comment streams “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness, and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.”


Above and beyond the matter of propriety is the not-too-small issue of community standards. If a news and commentary website is hunting for increased readership and additional advertising revenue, they would be wise to observe that increasingly both readers and advertisers are voting with their feet – or their mouse, if you will – and avoiding the sites with the unpleasant commentary.


Many discussions about the merits of profoundly changing or doing away with online comments, including The New York Times’ piece, cited the “New Yorker cartoon from 1993, during the Web’s infancy, with one mutt saying to another, ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,’ became an emblem of that freedom.”


That freedom includes the challenge that the marketplace is walking away from the “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness, and plain nastiness.”


No one seems to want to talk about the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech.


Nobody knows you are a dog until you prove yourself to be a junkyard dog, and if you are hunting for more readers and advertisers, the anonymous comment junkyard dog just won’t hunt.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at



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