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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