Sunday, November 18, 2007

More on Anonymity

We are fortunate to have sparked quite a lively debate on this blog. We got a lot of love from Google. Last week our magazine Policy Innovations was accepted by Google as a news source and Google's Blogger named The Ethical Blogger a "blog of note," triggering a flood of traffic and comments.

One of the biggest areas of debate so far has been about the utility of anonymous postings. I originally called for general transparency in the blogosphere here and mused on the counter intuitive credibility an anonymous blogger can have in oppressive environments, such as in China. We also had a touching comment from a teacher in the New York school system who was sanctioned for writing an op-ed, using a professional email address. Here is an excerpt:

I hate the feeling that in this country, a supposedly free country, that people must hide behind anonymous names.

I, too, hate the namecalling and animosity I read in debate. We can disagree without bashing the person; we can converse without rude language.

This is a topic I care about personally and professionally. How can students learn to debate and converse when all around them they see venomous attacks and language not worthy of intelligent thought?
This is a complicated case, as they all are, because this teacher tried to do the right thing but was caught in school system politics. I am not sure if this advice is applicable, but Tim O'Reilly has discussed anonymity quite a bit on his blog thread on developing a Blogger's Code of Conduct.

One of his codes of conduct is to connect privately before we respond publicly: "When we encounter conflicts and misrepresentation in the blogosphere, we make every effort to talk privately and directly to the person(s) involved--or find an intermediary who can do so--before we publish any posts or comments about the issue."

From the lessons he learned so far, he notes on anonymity:
Another place where we clearly erred in the first draft is in the suggestion that anonymity should be forbidden, as there are most certainly contexts where anonymity is incredibly valuable. (Some that come to mind include whistleblowing, political dissent, or even general discussion where someone might not want to confuse their personal opinions of those of an organization to which they belong. As one commenter remarked, it might even be useful for a shy person to whom anonymity gives a bit of courage.)

Like the New York Times Public Editor (read Matthew Hennessey's post on this topic here), O'Reilly concludes that civility is therefore of utmost importance:
But I believe that civility is catching, and so is uncivility. If it's tolerated, it gets worse. There is no one blogging community, just like there is no one community in a big city. But as Sara Winge, our VP of Corporate Communications pointed out, it's not an accident that "Civil" is also the first two syllables of "civilization." What's more, when an exchange of ideas turns into an exchange of insults, everyone loses.
Without civility, a few bad apples ruin the Internet for everyone.


The Fox said...

I am one of those who sees an appropriate time and place for anonymity. I work for a Church. I have a political science degree. When I say things, some people automatically assume I speak for the Church (either the parish or global Church). While the blogs listed under the identity I am making this comment under are linked to me, I have left comments or written anonymously in the past due to my chosen profession.

I also appreciate the inherent value of anonymity for those writing in places such as Iran or China. The point you have made are similar to my own beliefs.

Anne Cressy said...

Holy doodle,

I'm a small fish indeed in the blogosphere. I write and publish under my name, have ever since I discovered forums and online discussion groups. I couldn't understand years ago when I began, why the "spiritual" sites that I visited were replete with wild west rootin tootin low down shooting. And this anonymously...I left those environments after a while to coast along more civilly in a couple of well moderated forums and my own blog.

I haven't read much of what has been written here on civil behavior online...particularly the blogosphere.... I had to stop immediately and say I was delighted to see it is a conversation.

You've also partially answered a question I've had, one that has formed over these years about why people play hide and seek about who they are.

Let me go and explore some more...
Best regards

Anthony said...

In theory we should be able to say what we think in an open, honest way and not have to be concerned about consequences as long as no laws are broken.

The problem is that theory does not translate to the real world. An employer can take a blog and use it as a reason for termination. While it may not be possible to document, it's easy to see employers rejecting candidates on the same sort of consideration.

It becomes especially tricky when a person has had a mental health diagnosis. As though there aren't enough burdens tied to that scenario before blogging.

Athlyn Green said...

I couldn't agree more with your insights. Civility is always the road best travelled in life and in the blogisphere. The quality of blogs is determined by the method in which they are approached and executed.

Alan L. Maki said...

Google/Blogger has created an atmosphere of mistrust by the way they allow knowingly false information to be used to smear people which is very reminiscent of McCarthyism.

Google/Blogger has allowed people to post some of the most vicious, nasty, and bigoted things about me without the posters having to provide their names and contact information.

I sign my name to my blog and everything I write.

There should be regulations requiring everyone to have to provide their names and contact information prominently posted on every blog and web site.

Along with this their should be stringent laws protecting peoples' right to blog, write and speak without recriminations of any kind.

Moderated blogs are often used to stifle discussion dialogue and debate.

Alan L. Maki

Ember said...

Wow, this has caused me alot of consideration... As someone who has changed their birth name (first name and lastname)in the "real world", I find the whole idea of anonymity appealing but also realise that the name doesnt really change the energy of that person blogging, one's true nature always emerges. I feel that those who are deliberately √ľncivil"use blogging s a way of expressing all that they havent been able to express in their other life, however this really shouldnt be an excuse, the blogosphere is a created reality however it is a type of "reality" civility and debate with a clear honest expression included is an artform which i for one are endevouring to learn

Trauma Queen said...


I like ur blog - and it was a blog of note for a good reason :)

I have also questioned anonymity many times. At one point - i would blindly delete anon comments- my theory being - if u dont have a name - u probably dont have an identity that is worth acknowledging. in my experience, people resort to anonymity when they want to be rude but are too scared to reveal their identities - its a lot like masked vandals who are rebels without a cause!

Then again - these things are personal choices - and perhaps some people prefer being nameless and unknown than having a name. after all - its not fair to assume that anonymity is the same as not having an identity.

so right now, i'm a bit confused about my stand on this :|

but do read the blogpost I wrote on the subject:

blueblue said...

What does it mean to be anonymous?
I don't know the journalist who writes the article, the author or the person on the news broadcast, the politician or the celebrity or the person I stand behind at the grocery checkout.

A name is a name is a name.

And if I did 'know them', would it change my persective or the validity of what they had to say or make them somehow more or less entitled? Does who they are, change anything in regards to whether I agree or disagree with them? Are there people who I thought I knew, who apparently, I did not know very well at all?

Does knowing their name make them any more credible or any more transparent?

It's probably a bit precarious to assume that people are not able to make some basic decisions about what they will or won't take on board based on face value, or that someone's reputation or status makes them infallible.

Acceptable or unacceptable behaviour doesn't become 'invisible' by attaching a nom de plume or make anyone less accountable.

People have to be held responsible for their own actions and responses and to what sources they give 'authority'.

Perhaps we need to rethink our ethics if it involves being able to point the finger at someone else.

Anonymous said...

I've always looked askance at anyone who does not have the guts to use their real name. Certainly no one is gonna post their home addreess and phone, but using handles has alwayd been cowardly.

Even when I was the notirous Jazzman59 in the earily 1980's I had no problem with revealing my identity and no else should either.

If we have to hide behind an electonic cloak it deminishes every idea and word we use.

God Bless America,
george M Weinert V

hikids57 said...

I agree there is a time and place for anonymity. However, I do not seem to trust those selling from behind an "unknown" storefront.

On the other hand, many a youth can be pulled in to dangerous areas without realizing the name they are trusting is also as anonymous as an "anonymous" listing itself.

When it comes to the Internet I too must advise the use of CAUTION!

Jude's BlogLoggin said...

I live my life pretty much publicly so if I say something I have to own it. Although sometimes, posting Anoymously is done by people that may be a little email leery, I still feel that posting nasty comments is not neccesary and are usually dismissed when said under the blanket of "anonymous".

Catmoves said...

I too have read some nasty comments on various blog sites and marveled that the blog owner would publish them.
I did, that is, until I received a few of these. One of them I answered and suggested to the author that he/she start a blog of their own.
"Anonymous" replied that he/she didn't have the time to do that. We exchanged several comments on that page until finally the person gave up and said they'd "see me" some time.
I do not use "anonymous", but I do use a name (as you see here) in order to protect my family and myself. People who become my friends will usually receive my correct email address.
The lunatic fringe is out there. I know several bloggers who hide their real names because they have been threatened.
It's very easy to enter a name into a search engine and turn up information that really isn't anyone else's business. said...

Oh mannah I never noticed how civil and civilization sound the same! This argument is persuasive! You sound like the great Gorgias!

Chelle B. said...

This is a great discussion.

Being new to blogging, I'd been debating whether to allow anonymous postings on my own blog.

Then I realized that the name "anonymous" isn't really different than the other 99%'pseudonames' being used. It's more in the content and the intent than it is the name, so I judge soley by the latter.

For me, it isn't so much as to whether you are 'anonymous' but the fact that you are interested enough to post at all, and whether your post is relevant and non-offensive to others.

I also agree that anonymity is important and the right to hide behind it should be protected. For many, it is the only way they can express themselves, even for some living in the 'free world'.

Chelle B.
The Offended Blogger

Trees for our children... said...

There's a thing called "online trolling" that expresses this 'civility' in comment moderation pretty good...

I got that link from the site
[a sweet saskatchewan-view political blog that recently covered our provincial election petter than any other traditional media outlet!]

Chelle B. said...

I said.. It's more in the content and the intent than it is the name, so I judge soley by the latter...

I meant I don't judge soley by the latter, of course. :)

Diya said...

I feel today's democracy itself is a government formulated on anonymity. People elect a candidate based on individual goals in mind. And how intelligent are they to judge what is bst for the county? A pack of ill informed lot elects another mismatched govenment only to create havoc.

Amit said...

Hi Gone through your blog and found it interesing. I have placed a link of your blog and i will love to see mine with you

echidne said...

Anonymity has special value for women entering contentious debates. It allows them to participate without being exposed to vile language, for instance.

Nicole said...

I too have become discouraged from reading Newspaper blogs because people are just so mean and nasty. Their comments are insulting and personally I do not want to read a blog where people are hell bent on insulting each other. They choose to be anonymous so that they can appear to get away with this behavior, however I have found some very good blogs on blogger and I have enjoyed reading them.

Amoravick said...

Anonymity is for the most part a choice, but often times a circumstance which one may find themselves in whether they desire to be or not. One may use their name explicitly all over their blog, but if the blog carries with it no weight the person still, in a sense remains anonomous since no one knows who they are. On the other hand as a choice, should someone put forth something profound that connects with people, or causes a stir then there is a choice for anonymity. One may choose to reap the benifits and detriments of their idea, or to disassociate from their work. So online annonimity is less of a moral decision, than a personal choice.

K. said...

I've always preferred anonymity when on the internet. It gives me a sense of safety, because while I do want people to read what I've written, I wouldn't want information about me or my friends to be found by unsavory characters, especially without their (or my) consent. I also find it easier to comment on threads when I don't feel like people will judge me for what I say, since it's not really me saying it, in a manner of speaking. Being anonymous means I don't have to fret about the people I know who might see things I don't want them to, because how would they know? It lets me share more than I would if my posts were directly connected to me.

Anonymous said...

I decided to try the next readers. So I decided to post this anonymously...
As far as my english comprehension could absorb, this post express a reason to keep the option to anonymous comments. But as I read the comments, I felt that most of the people were taking their own point of view on the anonymous posting generally.
In my point of view, using this option to offend the blogger as one hides ones real identity might be common but does not characterize anonymous posting itself. As a matter of fact this is more a tool to measure how society is not mature yet, or the lack of capability of expressing oneself or arguments to deffend ones point.

To be trully honest with the one that might read this post occasionally, I posted as anonymous just because I wanted to practice my writing skills before a TOEFL test. What I believe I woudn't feel confortable enaugh to mention if I had my name exposed.

thanks for you interrents in my words.