May 18 2008
12:03 pm

A couple of editorials this week debate anonymity on the internet and the declining standards of public discourse. Excerpts and commentary after the jump...

Mike Cohen posted on the Ackermania blog this week about some Burger King executives who got fired for posting anonymously on blogs about a labor dispute. Mike says:

But the best part is that they got caught because the bigger issue here is the ability of people to post anonymously on the web. On one hand, it makes people free to say things without fear of retribution. That’s the upside. But it allows people to spew hate and venom, which they do way too much. If you monitor news sites comments sections there are often terrible, vicious things being said…things these people would never say if someone knew it was them making the statements. It’s the digital version of the hood that Klansmen used to wear.

I'm not sure about tagging anonymous users in general with the "Klansman hood" analogy. There are plenty of folks who prefer to keep their real name out of it for privacy or other legitimate reasons. Lots of them participate here at KnoxViews.

But Mike is correct that a minority of bad apples pollute the internet with their stupidity and infect online conversations with venom that serves no purpose other than wasting everyone's time. And for some of those people, Mike's "hood" analogy fits.

So anonymity isn't the problem. Idiots are the problem.

Following up on that post, Knoxville News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy had an editorial about their new website design that allows immediate reader feedback and commentary by way of comments attached to articles. It's an interesting look at what the KNS is learning and how they're struggling with it. Anyone who has operated a blog or a discussion forum has known this for a long time and could have told them what would happen.

But here's an interesting remark:

Anonymity, they fear, breeds contempt. Some would like newspapers to extend their usual standards of verification and attribution to the Web.

But the Web plays by its own rules. Forcing identification and verification would merely drive the nameless but free-flowing discourse to blogs and forums away from mainstream media sites, and newspapers would become less relevant to the public dialog.

So McElroy is basically saying that newspapers have decided to compete with blogs and forums by lowering their standards for public discourse in the guise of "free speech."

I find this fascinating for a variety of reasons. The KNS has been a pioneer in promoting the "free market of ideas" through blogs and public opinion websites, both their own and independently operated blogs such as this one. They figured out early on how to engage the "blogosphere" in friendly "coopetition" that promotes readership for both and, more important, heightens interest and participation in public affairs.

But bottom line pressures and competition for a finite pool of online "eyeballs" has apparently made them re-think this philosophy, and now they see blogs and forums as competitors. I suppose bloggers and forum operators should be flattered.

But the irony is that as blogs mature and become more "mainstream" and "respectable" they are taking aggressive measures to improve the quality of discourse, while at the same time traditional media believes it must lower its standards to compete. Once again, they are behind the curve figuring out this "internet thing."

Frankly, I was happy when the KNS started allowing comments. Our traffic here at KnoxViews took a temporary hit at first, as folks migrated to the KNS website to let fly with their opinions and commentary. Which makes sense. Before, blogs posted about newspaper articles and were the only forum that provided a means for instant feedback. Now, readers can go straight to the source.

But guess what? I sleep better at night and spend far less time moderating content now that some of the troublemakers are the News Sentinel's problem. That's traffic I don't need and they are welcome to it, along with the accompanying headaches and aggravation.

And after a temporary hit, traffic is back to even higher levels and I don't have a sense that KnoxViews readers miss all the venom and stupidity, as entertaining as it can be sometimes.

In fact, regular readers are all too familiar with the periodic crackdowns such as the "Great Stalinist Purge" here at KnoxViews. Every time this happens we lose some readers and traffic takes a temporary hit. But every time things eventually settle down and our traffic builds back up to new, record levels with a higher quality of participation and conversation.

Either way, we prefer quality over quantity. But then, we don't have shareholders demanding growth and bottom line results every quarter. We haven't had to lay anybody off, we haven't had to reduce our pixel size to cut operating costs, and in fact we recently moved to a more expensive dedicated server to handle the increased traffic. So I guess that's a good problem to have.

WhitesCreek's picture

There is one problem with anonymity

But before I go into that, let me say that I agree with everything you've said.

Progressives want and need someplace where they can have a community of rational people to discuss things with, sort of a virtual coffee house. The analogy holds particularly well when some of us appear to be over caffienated.

Blogs can do very little original reporting, but as Randy's interview with Carville shows, that too is changing. Our best value to date is still as an immediate "letter to the editor" as it relates to a piece in the mainstream media.

Now about anonymous posting...I totally support it.

RoaneViews recently started requiring everyone to register in order to comment but it was so that we could keep the voices straight when there was a lengthy conversation going on. We had several different "anonymous" commenters and the train of thought would get schizophrenic to say the least. At one point we had anons arguing different sides of the same issue. "Rational", which started difficult, became impossible. This doesn't seem to have happened at Knoxviews and that's good.

Even with registration, posters may remain anonymous, if that's what they would like. Pseudonyms are very appropriate in certain situations, as George Sands might point out.

R. Neal's picture

Good points. I have no

Good points.

I have no problem with anonymous posting. I have a problem with idiots, anonymous or otherwise.

talidapali's picture

I use a pseudonym...

because I have had problematic relationships with some people in my past. I don't know if they are savvy enough to use computers much less blogs and the internet in general, but as a precaution I post under a pseudonym on any blog I go to. However, if you are google-wise, you can find enough info on me to kind of figure out who I am in real life anyway. As a female, it is just a sound precautionary measure to have at least the small shield of a pseudonym between me and the blogosphere.

"You can't fix stupid..." ~ Ron White"
"I never said I wasn't a brat..." ~ Talidapali

Anonymously Nine's picture

In fact, regular readers are

In fact, regular readers are all too familiar with the periodic crackdowns such as the "Great Stalinist Purge" here at KnoxViews. Every time this happens we lose some readers and traffic takes a temporary hit. But every time things eventually settle down and our traffic builds back up to new, record levels with a higher quality of participation and conversation.

Is terraforming the readership to what you want to hear free and open discourse?

In “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, Napoleon the pig observes, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Anonymously Nine's picture

How do you see Animal Farm

How do you see Animal Farm as one of Orwell's worst books? It is considered one of the great works of the past century.

Not enough car chases?

WhitesCreek's picture

Dunno about M, but I didn't

Dunno about M, but I didn't expect you to get that one, Anon.

Particularly after your weird association of the book with your inane point.

Anonymously Nine's picture

Interesting critique of

Interesting critique of "Animal Farm". The allegory derivative nature of it made it interesting to me. Clearly you see it differently. I allow the author to expand from their philosophy in their work. Part of your complaint is that Orwell was not true to himself. I chose not to confine the author.

However, cracking wise on the "Dan" is uncalled for. I pity your inability to appreciate the supreme mastery of "Steely Dan".

Andy Axel's picture

Considering that they took

Considering that they took their nom de guerre from an imagined dildo in Burroughs' Naked Lunch, it's an apt critique.


"It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"

kag's picture


Great discussion, and one that's been on my mind.

As many have probably noticed, we've just changed our community tools over at from a system with truly anonymous posting (Topix) to a new system (Pluck) that requires users to jump through a hoop or two to become a member, and also requires e-mail address activation. With this new system, it's harder to throw a bucket of paint at the (virtual) wall and then just run, and I'm very hopeful this will improve the overall quality of discussion we have. My biggest goal, however, is that grows a true online community, as opposed to just a series of comments after each individual story. I'll be on TV talking about this stuff quite a bit later in the week...



kag's picture

As you know, Metulj, I am an

As you know, Metulj, I am an active member of several local online communities. I'm a fan, not some corporate shill who doesn't get what online community is. My enthisiasm for what we are doing at is genuine.

And I agree that no one can force community to grow and prosper. But I disagree with you that community - real, organic community - can't happen using a platform built and hosted by a media corporation. Look at what goes on every day in the message boards at iVillage. Or Slate. Or any number of other examples I could cite.

We will have different community standards than, say, what goes on in message boards at But that's okay. We'll likely be serving a very different audience, and I'm okay with that. I want folks to be comfortable there, and to a large degree, the community standards will evolve in their own way.



rocketsquirrel's picture

rather than see a lowering

rather than see a lowering of journalistic standards, I see the potential for more expansiveness on topics. y'all seem focused on the eyeball value of message boards, but there is more at stake here.

Unfortunately, local tv news is thin on depth of content, and usually (barely) scratches the surface. local papers and TV stations no longer can afford the cost of a deep reporting staff. That's just reality.

If WBIR and KNS really want to embrace Web 2.0, then they need to empower (not invite) the community to become producers of content (text, podcast, video). Some vetting/journalistic training needs to occur, compensation worked out...etc. Remember stringers?

An example of this was when fire broke out at the McClung Warehouses. I quickly took a KGIS map of the McClung warehouses, and overlaid it with property owners. I posted it on Restore Knoxville, emailed it to WATE, and called WATE to tell 'em it was coming.

Four minutes later, it was on the air. It gave context and clarity instead of the morning anchors wondering which buildings were involved and who the property owners were. I (the community) helped answer it for them.

It would have been nice if WATE credited their source, or said thanks or something.

CNN is doing something similar with, but I think their model needs tweeking. It is too vanity oriented, but it is a national/international audience. Where local media companies can improve is using more "beat" community reporters, so that it's not as much navel gazing (eg. "look at my pretty car, or garden, or whatever"), but actually covering in depth topics and issues. Imagine if WBIR allowed a four-minute locally produced segment once a week on the air, user generated. (or once a day). Could be on schools, crime, planning, stormwater, etc. But it just might improve the dialogue.

kag's picture

Imagine if WBIR allowed a

Imagine if WBIR allowed a four-minute locally produced segment once a week on the air, user generated. (or once a day). Could be on schools, crime, planning, stormwater, etc. But it just might improve the dialogue.

That's a great idea.

kag's picture

FYI - I always cite whatever

FYI - I always cite whatever community source I have drawn on: KnoxViews, KnoxBlab, etc.

I'm not exactly sure where we're disagreeing.



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