Saturday, January 29, 2011

Follow-Up Re: Anonymous Posting

Interestingly enough, yesterday, several days after my post, NewCastleNOW had an editorial post to their blog about anonymous comments. They attempt to justify their policy of allowing anonymous comments just as I explain my policy of no anonymous comments.

First let me say that it is their sandbox, so it is their right to make their rules. I just have to decide if I want to play in their sandbox, just as Patty and Tim have to recognize that they cannot play here anonymously. I choose not to participate in a forum that allows anonymous comments, but I certainly understand those who choose to play by their rules. Just don't come crying foul when the rules work against you. Either method (anonymous or no anonymous) is valid. But, the justification for allowing anonymous comments is nothing more than, I want to allow them to give anyone a chance to comment. That does not come without risks generally in the form of people spewing vitriol.

I point out that despite Sue Pender's claim, this is not a first amendment issue. This blog and their blog and the NY Times and the NY Post are all private websites that have no obligation whatsoever to allow everyone and anyone to post. In fact, it is the first amendment that gives them the right to set the rules and limit posting. Further, the claim is inconsistent with their practice. While they will allow any comment, they do not accept all Letters to the Editor and all Op-Ed type pieces. I speak from experience.

NewCastleNOW is not just a conduit for "free speech". They have editorial final say as they SHOULD. Their practice is to exercise that editorial right as they see fit. Again, they should. But the first amendment claim is invalid.

Too often people confuse their wants with their rights. They hide behind some concept of free speech and claim it is their right to say whatever they want wherever they want. Civility? Nope, I have free speech. Back on November 18th in this post to my blog I commented on civility and anonymous posting. NewCastleAlternative (NCA), NewCastleNOW, the Patch, etc. have no obligation to allow anonymous commenting. It is a proactive choice.

Ok, maybe it was poorly worded using the first amendment, but they want to give everybody a forum to express their opinions. Seems like a valid goal that should be applauded, right? It is. But then it gets murky again. Another reason given for allowing anonymous comments is that as "journalists" they err on the side of open communication. An anonymous comment, no matter how legitimate the idea in the comment, is the opposite of open. It is hidden behind secrecy. Transparency is what provides for open debate, not secrecy.

In her example, Ms. Pender says,
"Residents have anonymously expressed their frustration and anxiety about Chappaqua Crossing, both pro and con. That information, that residents are frustrated and anxious, is valuable to both the town board and the developer for making historic decisions that will impact New Castle forever. Many of these voices would not be heard but for the opportunity to speak anonymously."


Let's parse that statement. Start with the first word. If they are anonymous, how does Pender know they are residents? She assumes they are. I applaud her for her positive outlook on life assuming that everyone is who they imply they are, but I ain't buying it. In fact, on her blog, commenters are often accused of not being who they say they are. Ask "Westender". I had a person try to comment anonymously on my blog who later admitted that he (and I assume it is a he, but I have no idea) did not even live in the district (any more).

Then she wants us to believe that town board and the developer should assume these are all residents simply expressing their opinions. How can a public official (or SG) know if the person commenting is a constituent or is someone from outside pushing their own agenda? There is no way to know with anonymity. As a school board member, I put significantly more weight on comments that are made face to face, at a public meeting or in writing if it is signed. I would like to think that Rob Greenstein's petition with near 1,000 signatures in opposition to residential development at the former Readers Digest site carries much more weight with the Town Board than the anonymous posters on a blog. (Rob Greenstein is the poster boy for signed commenting!)

Second, NCN is certainly not the only place a resident who wishes to remain anonymous can make their voices heard as she implies. To claim that the School Board (and Town Board) would not hear these voices otherwise is flat out wrong. For example, someone wishing to remain anonymous could open a new email address (they are free and require no proof of identity) and send one to the Town Board or the School Board. We get them. We also get emails from people who sign them yet ask to remain anonymous. We honor those requests.

Third, look at the hypothetical example about why a person would wish to remain anonymous that Pender uses. The example used indicates the level of ethics expected of its readers by NCN. Ms. Pender thinks it is ok to be anonymous so you can post something that may be opposed to the interests of your employer? That concept is ethically challenged. Folks, it is not ok to anonymously act to undermine your employer. The concept of fiduciary is out the window on that one.

But again, probably just poorly worded. I do not think that example was their intention. I certainly appreciate situations where in business you wish to remain neutral and not have clients form opinions or make decisions based on your opinions or politics posted on the web. You are in a bind. You are forced to either not post, post under a pseudonym or post anonymously. But that is not the same as "providing information that very well may be contrary to the best interests of their employers." Again, maybe just poorly worded with good intent.

Finally, with anonymous comments, you are left with having to plead to your users to be civil or start censoring posts. Why? Because there is no accountability that comes with commenting under your own name.

Requiring commenting under your own name provides the real ingredients to open discussion; transparency and accountability. Anyone wishing to remain anonymous can still get their voices heard by going directly to the board.

This blog and NCN are playing the same game, just under slightly different rules. National League and American League. Designated Hitter or not, still baseball. You the players have to choose which blog policy you are more comfortable playing under: transparency and accountability versus anonymity.



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