Anonymity diminishes dialogue

April 1, 2010


It must have seemed like a great idea at the time.

There was this new medium, the Internet, and newspapers were posting stories on it, and someone decided to create a forum where readers could discuss and debate what they just read. It must have seemed an inspiration kissed by the spirit of Jefferson: a free public space where each of us could have his or her say.

Unfortunately, the reality of the thing has proved to be something else entirely. For proof, see the message boards of pretty much any paper. Or just wade in the nearest cesspool. The experiences are equivalent. Far from validating some high-minded ideal of public debate, message boards — particularly those inadequately policed by their newspapers and/or dealing with highly emotional matters — have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.

For every person who offers some trenchant observation on the point at hand, there are a dozen who are so far off point they couldn’t find their way back with a compass and road map. For every person who brings up some telling fact, there are a dozen whose “facts” are fantasies freshly made up to suit the exigencies of arguments they otherwise cannot win.

Why have message boards failed to live up to the noble expectations? The answer in a word is, anonymity. The fact that on a message board — unlike in an old-fashioned letter to the editor — no one is required to identify themselves, no one is required to say who they are and “own” what they’ve said, has inspired many to vent their most reptilian thoughts.

So, some of us are intrigued by what recently happened in Cleveland. It seems someone using the alias “lawmiss” had posted provocative comments and scathing personal attacks on the Web site of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Some of those comments and attacks evinced an unlikely familiarity with cases being heard by a local judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold. When lawmiss made a comment about the mental state of a reporter’s relative, the paper decided to trace the nickname. It found that the postings came from Judge Saffold’s personal e-mail account.

Saffold claims her 23-year-old daughter authored the comments. Sydney Saffold, who lives in another city, supports her mom’s story. Believe them if you choose.

Meanwhile, the paper has been criticized by some observers for unmasking lawmiss, and there is some merit to that. It’s wrong to offer anonymity, then yank it away. But it would’ve been “more” wrong to have evidence that a judge viewed an attorney appearing in her court on a capital case as “Amos and Andy” — to use one example — and do nothing about it.

The larger point is that the paper should not have offered its message posters anonymity in the first place. No paper should. A confidential source necessary to break the big story is one thing. But the only imperative here is to deliver more eyes to the Web site.

As any student of Sociology 101 can tell you, when people don’t have to account for what they say or do, they will often say and do things that would shock their better selves.

That’s the story of the mousy, mosque-going schoolteacher swept up in the window-breaking mob during the big blackout. It’s the story of the milquetoast accountant who insults the quarterback’s mother from the safety of the crowd. And it is the story of newspaper message boards, which have inadvertently licensed and tacitly approved the worst of human nature under the guise of free speech.

“Enough.” Make them leave their names. Stop giving people a way to throw rocks and hide their hands. Any dropoff in the quantity of message board postings will surely be made up in the quality thereof.

That’s my opinion. If you don’t like it, well, at least you know who to blame.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


AnnaUndercover 8 years ago

As one of my co-commenters once reminded me: "The Internet is about as civilized as a Viking raiding party." Definitely because of the anonymity.

Without your name up there, there's almost no consequence to truly devastating another person on purpose.

It doesn't have to be this way.

It is possible to get any idea across, no matter what it is, without being purposely destructive to someone else.

I wish we could all just take the snark down a notch or three. It feels better to be nice than to be mean, anyway.

AnnaUndercover 8 years ago

Anonymity, however, can serve a really good purpose.

For example, the only reason I can tell the story of how I became an exotic dancer, what my work is like, what my life is like now, etc. on the blog I write is because no one knows who I really am. If people did have my real name, I would be vulnerable to inaccurate stereotypes and unfair discrimination as so many (especially earlier) comments have indicated.

In that sense, it's good to be free of the consequences using a real name would bring.

Also, if the Viking raiding party ever came after me, I would be terrified.

independant1 8 years ago

A remark generally hurts in proportion to its truth. (Will Rogers)

Therefore I'm coming out, What Me Worry? (Alfred E. Neuman)

denak 8 years ago

".....Without your name up there, there's almost no consequence to truly devastating another person on purpose....."

Yeah, because obviously any insult ...no matter how supposedly devastating..is on the same level as calling the police on someone. rolling my eyes Give me a freaking break.

"....For example, the only reason I can tell the story of how I became an exotic dancer, what my work is like, what my life is like now, etc. on the blog I write is because no one knows who I really am. If people did have my real name, I would be vulnerable to inaccurate stereotypes and unfair discrimination as so many (especially earlier) comments have indicated...."

Anonymity can also give any self-absorbed narcissitic individual a platform to talk about her sore thighs, promote inaccurate information about her "profession", and post tirades about how unjust life is to her even though she puts herself in a position to be "victimized."

Gotta Love the internet.

Dena (which is my real name)

Paul R Getto 8 years ago

Leonard must be reading this award--winning newspaper. The Topeka paper is even more silly most days. This new cyber-village cultivates lots of idiots, but I can see why some people chose to remain hidden behind their digital cloaking devices. It's a strange world out there full of (at times) freaks and geeks and cripples (lots of wonderful people too, I might add.)

Flap Doodle 8 years ago

That fact that we knew his real identity made He Whose Name Must Not Be Used so much more believable (not).

Ron Holzwarth 8 years ago

For an unknown like me, using my real name really makes no difference. I'm even in the phone book! The downside is that I'm right next to Home Depot, so I get a few calls intendended for them.

But I do try to think at least twice before I post anything.

63BC 8 years ago

The Federalist Papers were all published under the pseudonym "Publius."

Anonymous political communication has its place.

At least, the author of the First Amendment [and a plurality of the Federalist Papers], James Madison, thought so.

Maddy Griffin 8 years ago

Lovin' your April Fool's joke Nancy -tom. Glad to see you've got a little sense of humor!

alm77 8 years ago

Tom, I've been April fooled once already. I'm on high alert.

I have kids. They have friends. Their friends have parents. I have opinions. If I can't express my opinions anonymously, I just won't say anything at all. I don't someone disassociating with me or my kids because I publicly disagreed with them.

I don't "troll". I don't say things I don't mean. I have had my mind changed on here about certain things, so in that regard, it's been a good thing. I've had to think about things in a way I hadn't before. Some of the things I've reconsidered have been because of anonymous comments. Do I wish we had to pass an intelligence test or at least a spelling test before getting our monikers? Yes, ;) we could do better. But that doesn't mean the comments are all of no value. Some are, some aren't, whether they have a name behind them or not.

jayhawklawrence 8 years ago

Sometimes anonymity is an important part of a functioning and free society.

Most Americans have jobs and work in situations where political and religious views and oftentimes even small things such as your taste in music can have an impact on your career or job status.

I think Leonard Pitts is completely wrong and I usually agree with everything he writes.

I am wondering what his position is on the union voting changes that some people in the Obama administration are trying to push through which would eliminate the secret ballot.

Campaign financing should also have some anonymity to protect private citizens.

However, there should be limits to the level of privacy enjoyed by very large contributors or organizations particularly regarding attack ads.

There should be limits on the type of coercion used by large unions to rein in their members and more control over how union dues are used in political campaigns.

The same is true regarding public corporations. There should be more control by shareholders regarding the use of dues in political campaigns.

All of these areas bring up the issue of finding the proper balance between a public expression of views and the importance of privacy and the protection of individual expression in a free society.

Campaign finance laws have been changing dramatically and this is an important issue affecting all of our freedoms.

Leonard Pitts is an uplifting and inspired columnist but I have to disagree with him on this issue.

What of the millions of Americans who are becoming independents? How are they to express themselves in a polarized political environment?

When the political parties forsake the average American, how well will the system speak for us? When the talk shows and news channels become radicalized and commercialized, who will speak for the average private citizen who is struggling to pay their bills and raise a family and who is disturbed by the political rhetoric we see today?

beatrice 8 years ago

Haven't we beaten this dead anonymous horse already?

Knowing a person's name doesn't lead to civility. Conversations on line are not the same as in person.

jaywalker 8 years ago

"there are a dozen who are so far off point they couldn’t find their way back with a compass and road map.... there are a dozen whose “facts” are fantasies freshly made up to suit the exigencies of arguments they otherwise cannot win."

Mr. Pitts has obviously encountered porch person.

lindsaydoyle 8 years ago

I give a lot more validity to anonymous posters than I do to spokespersons for the mainstream media like Pitts, Cal Thomas, George Will, etal. I am quite capable of filtering out what I need to. I find a lot more truth from the internet than I do from the mainstream media who are more interested in herding us like cattle than informing us. The MSM would like to do away with the internet and the anonymity issue is just a ploy. I care more about the truth than I do about Pitts' self-adjudicated rules of propriety.

yourworstnightmare 8 years ago

Barack Hussein Obama, a black man of kenyan ancestry, is President of the United States of America and Commander in Chief of the US military.

A black man is president.

Choke on that binky, right-wing puerile cry-babbies.

Teabaggers, unite! Take to the streets in revolution! Take your country back! Rebellion! Hutaree! Teabaggers! Idiots!

(sad trombone) Waaaa waaa waaa waaaaaaaa

(right-wing cry-baby) Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Rex Russell 8 years ago

I have agreed and disagreed with topics and POV's of different posters on LJW. I've come to respect the views of some who I disagree with also. At times, the commentary rises above the muck. But that is rare. The individuals who supply the daily fear mongering, endlessly repetitive partisan diatribes, and intentional ignorance are the problem. We have a few who offer nothing but "stirring the pot" and standing back giggling. Anonymous or named, don't think you offer anything valueable. If you truley have a point to make, I'll listen. If you are here just to listen to yourself and your ego, you offer very little worth.

Marty_McFly 8 years ago

I've been sleeping a lot better once I started using my own name.

yourworstnightmare 8 years ago

The president is a black man. His middle name is Hussein. He is of kenyan ancestry.

Time to take your country back, Hutaree-baggers. Revolution. Rebel! Take to the streets. Piss and moan like petulant children!

Boston_Corbett 8 years ago

Snap says: "That fact that we knew his real identity made He Whose Name Must Not Be Used so much more believable (not)."

Woof, woof to that.

Flap Doodle 8 years ago

Our Pantone 138 Kansas-heritage Dear Leader is in the process of displacing Jimmy Carter as the worst President in American history. Would you care for a cup of tea, nighty? I can make one for you fresh & hot.

lindsaydoyle 8 years ago

If I wanted to know how Sandra Bullock and Jesse James (whoever he is) are doing or if I cared about what is currently politically correct I would give some validity to the mainstream media. But there is too much of what is conspicuous in its absence with the mainstream media so I get my info from legitimate sources instead. Of course, this requires some critical thinking skills, knowing what ad verecundiums, ad populums, etc. are. All of that which the msm base their credibility upon.

Tom Miller 8 years ago

@ TomShewmon (Tom Shewmon) says… you made me chortle, chuckle, and even guffaw! and regarding anonymity, you KNOW my perspective, 'cause, yes, we done flogged THIS deceased equine.

Tom Miller 8 years ago

@ TomShewmon (Tom Shewmon) says… you made me chortle, chuckle, and even guffaw! and regarding anonymity, you KNOW my perspective, 'cause, yes, we done flogged THIS deceased equine.

Tom Miller 8 years ago

gawd...double posting, again, and NOT by MY paws...

Tom Miller 8 years ago

and a term I've heard, and appreciate is "lamestream" media...

mom_of_three 8 years ago

alm77 - ditto, ditto and DITTO.

and some of the things I post, my mother would prefer I would be anonymous. She's a repub, I am not, and sometimes, she wonders who raised me.

Jeremy DeBoard 8 years ago

Anonymity has given us some great quotes, though.

"A closed mind is a good thing to lose." "A groundless rumor often covers a lot of ground." "A man is known by the company he avoids." "Discretion is the better part of valor." "May no portent of evil be attached to the words I say." "To him that you tell your secret you resign your liberty." (Proverb)

And ironically, "Write a wise saying and your name will live forever." - Anon

George Lippencott 8 years ago

Judging by a number of comments above many of my fellow bloggers prefer anonymity. My distillation of the reason is a fear of accountability.

I fully understand that there are some of us who legitimately have cause to be concerned at expressing their opinions. But unless we live in a “police state” much larger than I have imagined it could just not be possibly that all those who trade nameless in this space are in legitimate fear.

For the vast majority who have no legitimate fear of consequences, if you fear consequences of what you write, perhaps you should not be writing it. There is one indisputable fact in Mr. Pitts’ article – we are all more cautious when we are accountable for our actions.

I guess if one trades in “talking points” from either side of the aisle, one really knows little about what they are writing and they then reflect that ignorance in anonymity. Darwin, bless us all!

Rex Russell 8 years ago

Good comment George. I don't think I have written anything here that I wouldn't say to anyone on a face to face basis. I'll continue to use that measure of civilty and integrity. To George L.: We definitely don't agree on everything. I'm more of a fiscal conservative / social progressive. However, you have always offered opions with cognitive reasoning instead of blizzards of b---s---. I appreciate that. Most of what passes for dialog here is really just low-brow partisan jabs and personal insults. I believe yes, if some were forced to back up some posters comments on a face-to-face basis, it would be very different.

Jeremy DeBoard 8 years ago

What about pen names? Who's to say if I was to place a name in place of anon that it would be my own?

What's to stop people from using pen names instead of being anon? Does LJW run a background check on the information they gather as requirements for "real name" status to ensure that "real name" posters are who they say they are?

Ricky_Vaughn 8 years ago

I think Marion was touting the same idea right before he disappeardeded...

Jeremy DeBoard 8 years ago

On which point? Anonymity is bad for conversation or pen names can be used in lieu of real ones, thereby defeating the basis of "real name" status?

mom_of_three 8 years ago

George, I agree with you to a point. However, when I post my opinion, in a non-accusatory manner, and get ridiculed and named called, why would I want my name on it, for them to do that to me in person? I don't want to be criticized for my opinion, as legitimate as it is. I don't want anyone to judge me for what I write. But yet, I feel a right to post my opinion anonymously, as I am not one of those who post hateful diatribes or resort to name calling. I also don't want my children judged for my opinion, (and postings have been brought up in class).
Its not that what I write is wrong or inflammatory, but can be of unpopular opinion. I prefer to remain anonymous.
And I think you would miss me if I was gone, or at least honeychild would

yourworstnightmare 8 years ago

snapple_crack_pop invited: "Would you care for a cup of tea, nighty? I can make one for you fresh & hot."

That sounds great. Maybe we could discuss how our president, Barack Hussein Obama, is a black man of Kenyan ancestry.

Maybe we and your avatar could also discuss how the president is near! The president is near!

The call of the tea-bagger to rebellion is "Hutaree"! Take to the streets! Take your country back! Our president is a black man! Revolution! Idiots!

Btw my name is puddin 'n tame. Ask me again and I'll tell ya the same.

jbiegs 8 years ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

George Lippencott 8 years ago

mom_of_three (anonymous) says…

Yes, I know what you mean having been on the receiving end of some rather nasty comments. I just consider it part of the world we live in. If you allow them to drive you off or to change your beliefs, they win. One of many problems with anonymity is that it is difficult to judge the quality of your opinion as no one knows your pedigree. “Katara” came after me for that but I remain committed to the notion that an unsigned opinion has little weight except as an unsigned opinion.

George Lippencott 8 years ago

jbiegs (anonymous) says…

Come on, that was inappropriate!

independant1 8 years ago

Barak Hussein Obama is a Kanyen doggone it!

We shouldn’t elect a President. We should elect a magician. (Will Rogers)

jmadison 8 years ago

Perhaps we should all drop the anonymous tags when newspaper editorials such as those in the New York Times and Washington Post are signed by their authors.

BigPrune 8 years ago

Anonymity doesn't diminish dialogue. It lets most people speak their true opinion without fear of retribution (though the Obama Administration thinks otherwise). - The marketplace of ideas should be rejected, and the people who run blogs or internet websites need to be punished for comments from internet posters. There is too much free speech in his mind. Think twice at what you say. That's why Mark Lloyd, the FCC internet diversity czar was appointed by Obama.

Freedom of speech should not apply if you do not have the liberal agenda in mind. A perfect example is the liberals (socialists) failed game plan to limit conservative talk radio.

Do as they say, not as as they do.

ReeceMassey 7 years, 11 months ago

I would agree that anonymity would give people the sense of security with giving their true opinions on things, but anonymity also sucks for the people who want to just hound other commenters, or writers, or even the President of the United States. How would you like to be in his position? So what if the President is African American? Because he has more pigment in his skin than I do, doesn't make him a difference species, or different at all, for that matter. He is a smart, hard-working man, and he has sacrificed a lot to help fix this country. Trillions of dollars in debt, and with a third of the country hating him, he's not giving up, is he? I'd like to see anyone else in his shoes. Every President has haters and lovers. If you want to hate on an African American President, converse it to your dog. I bet it would listen (and care) more than anyone else would. Bytheway, Reece Massey is my real name.

ReeceMassey 7 years, 11 months ago

And also, if you don't agree with having an African American President because of his middle name, move to Canada. I'm sure the United States of America would miss you.

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