Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sympathy for the Quad City Times . . .

. . . a sister paper to my employer, the North County Times. Like us, the QC Times has opened up to Web comments on its stories. Disturbingly to the polite Midwestern culture, there are many anonymous comments, and some are quite rude. Barb Ickes writes:

"A couple of things about this magical reader interaction ain’t so magical. For beginners, who would’ve guessed such a huge majority of readers would choose to express themselves anonymously? What’s wrong with taking credit for your views? Where is the courage of conviction?"


"It’s also become apparent that Web sites such as ours are giving some people an opportunity to simply vent their hostilities, personal dislikes and prejudices to an audience. Though it seems more humane than kicking the dog, it’s just about as pathetic."

Tell me about it, sister.

What's happened to Barb (can I call you Barb? We work for the same employer, after all) is what happens to everyone who stumbles into Internet interaction, without fail. That's the discovery that many people can be mean and hateful when granted the ability to speak anonymously. Everyone who's run a site open to public comment will sooner or later brush up against this fact.

And there are legitimate reasons for anonymity, as one anonymous commenter on Barb's piece wrote:

"The problem with posting with your name attatched can be seen easily in Silvis. A person wrote to the city council with their name attatched was fined $50. Another person who spoke up to power in Silvis had their job threatened. If you express yourself honestly in the Quad Cities, you'd better be prepared to move, or get a new job. Freedom of speech doesn't prevent you from being fired, hounded, exploited...etc."

Of course, there's no way of knowing if this is true. But still something to consider.

Mary, no full name given, had this point to consider:

"For safety reasons, most "experts" suggest that people don't use their real last names when posting on public internet forums. In fact, I think this is the first time I've ever heard anybody encourage people to use their full names in online forums. Don't you read or watch the news, Barb? Ever heard of internet predators?"

Using one's full name in an online forum is hardly unprecedented, but Mary has a good point. I use my full name, but (1) I'm a guy, not the usual candidate for a stalker and (2) As a reporter, my name is in the paper anyway. Any attempt at anonymity would be pointless.

One thing that Barb should consider is that over time, at least some people will reveal who they are, or information about themselves. People who remain truly anonymous run into some skepticism on the Internet. I've seen it happen at the blog where I most hang out, Cathy Seipp's, which is still as I write this suffering from a JournalSpace outage.

Barb, the best thing the QC Times can do is act as a nurturer. Ban those who are dangerous or libelous, and encourage people to talk and get to know one another. The worst thing that could happen to this experiment would be if nobody showed up. But you don't have that problem. So be glad, be patient, and have some fun.

H/T: The Blogging Journalist

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