Sun
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.

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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.”

metulj's picture

Again, for the millionth

Again, for the millionth time, right wing kooks quoting Orwell, especially one of his worst books, proves the theory of cognitive dissonance. Orwell (Eric Blair) was a hard-to-the-core socialist to the day he died and was a major proponent of Continental social democracy. Why quote in affirmation that which you despise?

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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.

metulj's picture

No. His best work is his

No. His best work is his reportage from Spain during the Civil War or "Down and Out." I also think that his essays especially his piece in defense of P.G. Wodehouse are some of the best things ever written in the English language. Then there is "1984," which is monumental. I agree with Richard Rorty that Orwell was able to use literature, rather than religion or philosophy, to build moral landscapes.

"Animal Farm" is an allegory and derivative. I don't care for it because it overshadows a lot of his other work and is often presented in ways (especially in America when you and I were growing up and I assume still) that do not reflect what Orwell intended. In other words, it was used as a tool of political indoctrination in high schools against leftist thought, even though its writer was a socialist and a life-long advocate of worker and human rights. You weren't told that part. I certainly wasn't. Yeah, it's on a lot of top 100 lists I am sure. I am not so sure I care for those lists at all as they are making judgments of quality among things that cannot compare. I am sure there is a list out there that cites "Aja" by Steely Dan. Clearly wrongheaded.

Anyhow, Orwell was, first and foremost, a critic of authority, which lead to his distaste for Stalinism (which he called what was practiced in the Soviet Union) and its corruption of Enlightenment ideas. He was a liberal through and through and saw knowledge as a way to become free as an individual. So, the lesson here is: "You'll notice I never cite Von Hayek in the affirmative."

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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".

metulj's picture

"Part of your complaint is

"Part of your complaint is that Orwell was not true to himself."

My complaint is that book is used in ways in which it wasn't intended. As for confining the author, I prefer to have read most of his works before casting judgment, or taking a shot at summarizing his 'philosophy.' You should give it a shot, rather than assume that what he thought was encapsulated in one thin book you had foisted upon you in secondary school. Or you can stick with Wikipedia. YMMV.

Steely Dan: They have truly mastered wanking.

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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

commenting

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

As many have probably noticed, we've just changed our community tools over at WBIR.com 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 WBIR.com 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...

-Katie

(link...)

metulj's picture

Why does WBIR want to grow

Why does WBIR want to grow an online community? Advertising plain and simple. I know this is what you do for a living Katie, but I also know that people at Scripps and other media outlets wring their hands over things like Knoxviews, The Blab, and other places. Why? Because the eyeballs are looking at the free stuff, not at sponsored advertising. I am sorry, but all you have to do is going to any media sponsored online community and no matter the registration or policing that goes on, the feeling isn't "there." Talk about pissing on the urinal walls of the internet. Just look at any comment section of any N-S article. Yikes. Nice community there (or one that is more reflective of meatspace then we care to admit?). I agree with R. Neal that one thing that the N-S's comments feature has done is draw away the idiots to scream at each other over there. I just don't see the marketing pop with those folks, but, who knows?, maybe if they have big click throughs.

You can't force community to happen. I think that's what is at play here. What could WBIR do to get people from the Blab over there? Allow the "anything goes" stuff on their site? Really? Would you allow "The Dirt?" Now I know that the admins eventually canned that thread, but it went on for 6 months with some really wild stuff. Could WBIR stand something like that? Its what people want to see. Hell, there's already an alternative Blab that has less rules than the "practically no rules" Blab. Could WBIR just let go and see what happens? Would they go that far for the eyeballs?

What if JJJ started posting the creepiest of his creepy stuff? The switchboard would light up.

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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 WBIR.com 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 Nerve.com. 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.

-Katie

(link...)

metulj's picture

"And I agree that no one can

"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"

I don't dispute this, but I am going to lay it out there and say that Knoxville's (as well as where-I-am-living-now's) media use certain key discussion groups to get a finger on the zeitgeist, pick up leads to stories and find out about all kinds of things that are just going on or angles on matters than are readily apparent. I would criticize them in two ways, one functional, the other philosophical.

First, the function of the community board is to, well, foster community. By planting a message board or community function into your story on X, Y, or Z on your site, you are mimicking an artifice that already exists. One can ask "Why?" What would the answer to that be? It is difficult to compare a recently created corporate message board with the Blab. While its origins were with the Metropulse, if you follow along the genealogy, there is no denying that its life has been the movement away from corporate control to whatever-the-hell you can call it now. If The Funhouse stopped sponsoring it tomorrow, there is a contingency to send it to some other server to be maintained by another community member. I wouldn't call it "organic" as the metaphor is poor. "Vital" would be better, and any corporate mimicking of it is mere commodification of that vitality.

The second point is linked to the first by this proposition: "The Knoxblab already exists, but rare is the citation of it as a source or inspiration." You can substitute any number of other sites from the broadly-local, broad-interest ones like Knoxviews to fairly local, generally one-issue sites like Saysuncle. If what is driving the discourse isn't referenced, then that could be seen dishonest. I'd rather call it "purposeful practice" rather than lay some moral value on the activity. By not giving credit to those sites where the odd story comes from that interests the odd reader, but still offering a commentary area for that odd reader, there is a passive exclusion from those other sites occurring, both of those sites and of that reader. That's unfortunate. I am not talking about links to other posts on other sites via trackbacks. I am talking about straight news stories that make it on line. I know that R. Neal has been cited for things now and again, but journalism is alleged to have standards. Let's see them evolve to be inclusive not only of the reader, but of the source/inspiration of the story. Better to have many ways into and out of a subject than to simply have someone riding herd on that subject.

Sorry to be combative, but this needs to be aired out a bit, maybe.

PS. I don't think you are a shill. Maven is a better word.

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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 ireport.com, 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.

metulj's picture

That's a good start. True

That's a good start.

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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.

-Katie

(link...)

metulj's picture

You do, but.... True

You do, but....

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

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