The cost of anonymity on the Web

"That's what the Internet's for, slandering others anonymously!"
      — Jason Lee as Banky Edwards in
Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back

Last night I said, "The abuse of anonymity makes me sad," and also that I would find some time this week to write about it.

So here goes.

I used to be purely against anonymity on the Web. Then my friend Sassy Pants started blogging anonymously (save for a few of us who know her identity), and I started to understand somewhat.

And then Sassy Pants led me to the fictionalized recreational sex blog Girl With a One-Track Mind, written by "Abby Lee." It's a really well-written, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable blog, and eventually "Abby" (a pseudonym, hence the quotes) was handed a book deal. So, she wrote a book.

Just days after the book hit the stands, she was outed in horrid fashion by a British paper as a mainstream film worker named Zoe Margolis.

I was horrified by The Guardian's treatment of her: They sent flowers to "Abby Lee" via her book agent, then had a photographer follow the delivery to her door.

She had to call her mom and warn her.

Can you even imagine the conversation? "Hi, Mom. Just a warning. When you get the paper tomorrow, you're going to find out that I have a lot of sex and that I write rather luridly about it. That's all. Love ya. Say hi to Dad."

Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That terrorist attack – a bomb on a timer in a suitcase aboard an international flight – killed all 259 people on board the plane, plus 11 people on the ground.

It also was a wake-up call to the international community regarding airline security.

When I first visited Syracuse University on Nov. 1, 2002, I learned that 35 of the people on that plane were exchange students from the university on their way home for the holidays.

Sean Kirst spoke to some of the survivors, and here is where my ire is drawn: read the comments on the story. You'll see they end with the phrase, "Comments are now closed for this entry."

The phrase follows a note from Mark Libbon at The Post-Standard:

A number of inappropriate comments have been removed, as suggested by the previous comment.

I happen to have the privilege of working for syracuse.com, and so this morning, I took occasion to read some of the comments that were removed from the site.

Sadly, I have to say, they deserved removal. They were everything from hateful to useless to irresponsible. And that's the problem with offering people anonymity: there's no accountability for what they say.

Let's be honest. We all have stuff we'd love to say, but let's face it, some things we keep to ourselves, because they have consequences we're not willing to incur. These consequences might be anything from being branded an idiot or a racist, to being fired for representing your company in an unprofessional manner.

But let's face it: unless you're the late Mark Felt – the best-known anonymous source ever – you probably need a really good reason for anonymity on the Web. And you shouldn't abuse it by saying anything you'd be embarrassed to say if you put your name behind it.

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3 Comments

  • I feel you here, Josh. I often have to balance in my mind the need for anonymity versus the right of knowing who’s saying something, and it’s always dependent upon the circumstances. I know that in the last week of the election, on Twitter, that I had a problem with quite a few people, not their positions but how they were saying what they had to say. Since I don’t follow anyone who I can’t somehow identify, it depressed me seeing what some people were writing, so I dropped them from my Twitter following. I could see where those folks would be hoping that they could have stayed more anonymous.

    At the same time, I’ve always said that people need to be more responsible in the things they say online, and if they were so then there wouldn’t be as much need for someone to hide themselves. So, while I lament the woman who wrote about all the sex being outed, a part of me says that if she wasn’t proud enough of it to write it in the open without worrying about being outed, maybe she shouldn’t have written it in the first place.

    Then I have to add one more piece. That is, I also have a private blog where I write about things that don’t have to do with my businesses, just to get things off my chest. I keep it anonymous for business reasons, but if someone did find out I was the one writing it I can honestly say that I have no worries that anything I’ve written about is anything that I’d be ashamed of. I just didn’t feel like dealing with people knowing all my political positions before I was ready to give it to them.

    Just so I don’t seem too much like a hypocrite. lol

  • I’m not really sure what are the criteria for comment removal at Syracuse.com, though, since it seems any kind of racism or sexism goes in all the other comment threads. (I didn’t see the ones posted on Sean Kirst’s Pan Am 103 thread, though.)

  • I can offer a little bit of insight into commenting on syracuse.com. Most of this is taken from the site’s community rules.

    All comments are allowed to flow directly to the site after being searched by an automated filter (that’s why something like “a$$h*le” might make it). Lots of sites do this, because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act includes a clause that makes users responsible for anything they post (libel, copyright, etc.), but if a human employed by the site moderates it first, the site becomes responsible.

    The site has an interactivity management group (for forums, comments, etc.) based elsewhere, where they’re not subject to bias in local politics, sports and what have you. Their job is to respond to e-mails from people who clicked the “Inappropriate? Alert us.” link available on every forum post, blog comment, or uploaded photo or video.

    Generally speaking (though not always, as in the case of the Pan Am 103 story), the site and the newspaper try to stay out of it, unless things get really ugly.

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