Blogging Bayport Alameda

February 19, 2009

Anonymously yours

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 7:00 am

Last Friday, Mark Morford, a columnist for SFgate, wrote a piece about how anonymous commenters have “destroyed” meaningful dialogue on the Internet.   And that was just in the title!  I found the reasoning that Morford gave to be…less than thoughtful.   It appears that Morford laments the decrease in his email more than anything else.

Much like everything on the Internet, the good outweighs the bad even sometimes when the bad is so bad it makes you want to close up virtual shop for good, the alternative is so much more stifling to meaningful dialogue than any amount of anonymous commenting.

Personally, and no offense to Morford or the folks out there that hate anonymous commenting, but the notion that anonymity has made folks/commenters less thoughtful and more likely to be abusive is simplistic.   I think there are examples of the hit and run anonymous commenters that does nothing to add to the conversation, but on balance I think that anonymous comments and commenters add to the dialogue a great deal.  I think it was someone in the comments section of the Morford piece that opined (I’m not going to go find it so I am paraphasing there) that there is nothing that guarantees that just because someone puts their real name behind their comment that it’s going to be any more intelligent or respectful.

In general, I have found that some of the funniest and most thought-provoking comments come from those folks that are, technically, anonymous through their use of an avatar or initials or the similar.   While of course there will always be the one-off comments that makes my brow wrinkle, all in all, while spirited I think the discussion that is produced makes up for any of those types of comments that really do add nothing to the conversation other than to, in Morford’s words, lob “hit-and-run verbal spitwads and avoid[] responsibility for what you say.”

However, Morford has this sage advice to commenters everywhere, the “aha” solution on how to fix what ails Web 2.0:

…There is, of course, another solution, and it’s far simpler and more elegant and it would fix the entire problem in an instant.

It is this: Reveal yourself. Anyone who wishes to post a public comment must also post his/her real name, an actual email address, maybe even a nice little headshot. You want to participate and add to the conversation, criticize and parry and thrust? Great. Let’s see who you are, honest and true. Fire it up. Debate. Engage. Let’s create a real community…

While, in theory, this would be a wonderful thing, that we should all own our thoughts and opinions and comments.   Which is why I respect the folks who use their real names that comment on this and other blogs slightly more than those that are anonymous.   It is satisfying to read a comment from a Mike Rich and know that Mike Rich really honestly exists out there.   Or from a Mark Irons, David Kirwin, David Burton, Kate Quick, insert your name here and know that those people are active and involved folks in the community. (Names chosen at random.)

But on the other hand, the cost of putting full name behind your opinions can be very high, particularly when you are dealing with politics, and local politics are the worst.   While some people may decry “personal attacks”– whatever that is defined to be in that person’s mind — criticizing someone’s position on an issue or even flaming someone virtually is a far cry from some of the antics against folks who have been forthright enough to reveal their name in comments and on blogs.   Lawsuits, wikipedia entries, writing letters to donors (p.37) and then gloating about it, filing complaints with the FPPC, digging into people’s financial records and alleging ethics violations (p.86), threats of lawsuits (p. 99, 188, 121), publishing people’s personal information…those are the types of things that chill and destroy meaningful dialogue, not anonymous commenting.

Again, I don’t care if you chose to be anonymous, it’s your right.   The people reading your comment can make the determination whether to believe what you say or not and how credible they believe you to be.   However,  as a side note, I do take issue with folks who complain about anonymous commenting and then turn around and do it themselves.   Anonymous, I can respect.  Hypocrites, I cannot.

I don’t feel the need to ever comment anywhere not using my own name (lest anyone had any inkling that I went around and did it), but on the flip side, I am very careful not to disclose too much information about my personal life other than throwaway details.  Because it’s not the anonymous commenters that scare me, it’s the petty retaliatory tactics — aimed to harm someone outside of the world of the Internet, IRL — that are waged in this town that scares me.


  1. amen

    Comment by JR — February 19, 2009 @ 8:53 am

  2. Lauren,

    Obviously I am not so sanguine about the prospects of anonymity. The vast majority of comments over all may be posted without revealing the actual name and perhaps only because of that opportunity not to be revealed, but the vast majority of abuse appears under protection of anonymity where the posts wouldn’t be made otherwise. All the trolls. It might stifle the dialogue to not have anonymity, but in some circumstances anonymity undermines the veracity of the post.

    You can maintain that it is only the content of the comments themselves which matter so in a debate the identity is irrelevant, but there are times where that inequity creates an unfair advantage.

    You also must know of instances where people post under different names in the same thread to give the appearance of a group.

    When it comes to attacks with full attribution: live by the sword and die by the sword IRL. Instant karma and all that.

    Comment by Mark Irons — February 19, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  3. Good post. The reason I won’t post my name is that, while I’m interested in the issues here, I find David Howard way too nasty in his tactics to even risk being the subject of one his sad little vendettas. I like Alameda for the most part and I care about it, but I care more about keeping my family clear of Howard’s recurrent creepiness.

    Comment by BC — February 19, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  4. I don’t care if other people post anonymously; that’s their business. However, anonymous posts don’t convey the same level of credibility for me, because I feel there is a corollary between expression and exposition. An anonymous poster, to me, is analogous to Mapplethorpe doing his art anonymously. In that instance anonymity would be synonymous with cowardice.

    Comment by Michael Rich — February 19, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  5. While I understand the concerns of some that banning anonymous posting could stifle debate in some cases, I tend to agree with the arguments of Mssrs Irons and Morford. I support their arguments because we all have seen here at this blog and at others way too many stupid, personal and/or overly snarky shots taken behind the veil of anonymity. These comments can often inflame but rarely do much to propel a civil debate forward. And while room can and should be made for certain exceptions, I just like the idea of standing behind and being responsible for the words we write.

    Comment by Jeff Mitchell — February 19, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  6. How would you feel if some of these stupid, personal or outright defamatory comments directed at you identifying you with your real name pop up when an employer or a school searches for your name online? That person looking you up will not dig under the crap to see whether the comment is justified or not, they’ll just be left with an impression of you, however wrong.

    I fully stand behind the right of people to post anonymously. If the person uses a moniker consistently and posts often that person eventually acquires an online identity similar to their real one, without the unnecessary risk. I never saw anyone question the identity of “Alameda NayTiff” or “dave” or “notadave”. Come on, it’s always people we don’t like we get upset with for being anonymous.

    I’ve considered using my full name and decided against it. A specific commenter here, someone using real name, was what made up my mind. That person being openly named is not enough bait to get me to do it. I have no doubt that many people here know or could find out who I am. My purpose is not to hide, just to avoid problems caused by someone else’s malicious outbursts.

    Comment by AD — February 19, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  7. # 5

    “While I understand the concerns of some that banning anonymous posting could stifle debate in some cases,…”

    I think just the opposite. Banning anonymous posts would stifle far more debate than otherwise. Frankly, I find some (a good portion) of the anonymous posts (take ANT for instance, or Jack Richard for another) make more sense than signed posts. But that’s just me.

    Comment by Jack Richard — February 19, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  8. Mark: I think you would be suprised that the posting under different names in the same thread thing happens infrequently. There were some instances of it during super contentious topics, but all in all the sockpuppeting has been limited. And hasn’t happened lately.

    While most definitely the worst of the worst comes from anonymous commenters — does that mean that we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? And if we use Jeff M.’s “certain exceptions” clause, who then is the arbiter of who makes the exceptions?

    As fair as I like to think that I am, I am as human, and therefore fallible, as the next person. (Although some folks would like to think that I am not human. 🙂 ) I personally don’t believe that I could apply any exception that wouldn’t make someone cry foul.

    Comment by Lauren Do — February 19, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    • Shouldn’t that be “sock puppeteering”?

      Comment by Linda Hudson — February 20, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

      • Sure, I actually thought about that after I posted it and then was too lazy to go back to edit myself.

        Comment by Lauren Do — February 21, 2009 @ 6:38 am

        • I’m not contributing to this puppet thing, just trying to see how far to the right these “Reply”s will go before they fall off my monitor.

          Comment by Jack Richard — February 21, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

        • Good plan, please don’t mind the cut and paste. Good plan, please don’t mind the cut and paste. Good plan, please don’t mind the cut and paste.

          Comment by Jack B. — February 21, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

        • Not minding.

          Comment by Jack Richard — February 21, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

        • Raise you one indent.

          Comment by Jack B. — February 21, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

        • I’ve never been on the far right before; I kinda like it.

          Comment by Susan — February 21, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

        • I’ve been slidin’ right for a good while now…

          Comment by Jack B. — February 21, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

        • Careful, Susan. Too far right and you’ll meet the left.

          Comment by Jack Richard — February 22, 2009 @ 9:32 am

        • It looks like Jack Richard has heroically blocked the inevitable slide of the far right into the far left. -Good thing; I might have ended up an ardent socialist, and yet fond of winking and saying ‘you betcha!’

          Comment by Susan — February 22, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  9. An alter ego cannot feel love and loss, and does not pay taxes. As a consequence, its opinion does not merit equal footing with opinions provided by those willing to identify themselves.

    This position puts me in curious agreement with Mark Morford, who I find otherwise a discredit to every topic he touches, and certainly to his employer. I once dined with an old fashioned Chronicle beat reporter – the type who checks facts and lets subjects speak for themselves- about Morford’s meteoric rise. The “problem” with Morford could in fact be seen as the “problem” with the social fragmentation of journalism – which is: unlike with real journalism where you are supposed to get a story, with new journalism (blogging, columning, twittering) all you get is the author. Over and over again. Navel gazing, boasting, shadow-boxing with their own egos. I wouldn’t put this blog in that category, which is why I still check in, and yet hadn’t read a Morford piece in over 3 years.

    Comment by Matt Reid — February 19, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    • Mark Morford is a commentator / columnist, not a journalist. If there is a problem, it’s people’s inability to distinguish between the two.

      Comment by Andy Currid — February 20, 2009 @ 7:38 am

      • Andy – I get your point in principle, but take a closer look and you’ll find that the Chronicle is full of columnists who tell other people’s stories. These are journalists who understand the social responsibility of infusing their own style and slant on real issues, and who do this sparingly and carefully. Mark Morford abuses this privilege. He can’t get past his own vitriolic insecurities and is too in love with his own knack for turning a cute phrase to apply this skill in a useful and constructive manner. Contrast him with Alex Cockburn of if you want to see what someone who has applied this skill in a humble yet biting way can achieve. I view Morford’s promotion from digital to print as a disgrace to the Chronicle, it degrades the integrity of the non-renewable pulp the newspaper is printed on. A recent email exchange I had with him has reinforced this opinion.

        Comment by Matt Reid — February 20, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  10. There are several benefits to anonymous entries. One, it eliminates ad hominem attacks. Second, the thoughts are considered on their own rather than in conjunction with who made them. Third, it allows one to try out an idea without then being accused of holding that belief.

    In the scholarly world, most publications have a double-blind process for article submittal. That means that the author does not know who will be reviewing the article and the reviewers do not know the author. This assures impartiality as to whether or not the article will be published and prevents a rejected author from later taking vengeance on those who rejected the manuscript.

    Comment by AlamedaNayTiff — February 19, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  11. Lauren: In re your comments in #8 — I would only add that you, as the owner and primary writer of this site, call the shots. While you’re to be commended for making this a robust, informative virtual public square, you still set and enforce the parameters of how it used. So, yes, you could require folks leaving comments to do so using their full names. And, no, I don’t think it would be throwing the ‘baby out with the bathwater.” I think it would be a step toward improving the often ragged civil discourse and debate on our little island. Re the ‘exceptions’ I mentioned in #5, I was thinking about those rare situations where someone’s voice — in your considered opinion — needs to be heard, but by exposing their real name would subject them to hazing or harassment in the real world. Yes, those would be tough calls to make, but that comes with the territory of operating such a popular blog.

    Comment by Jeff Mitchell — February 19, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  12. I suppose I need to grow some balls.

    Comment by Grumpus — February 19, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  13. There’s a big difference between anonymity and pseudonymity, a difference that Mr. Morford (whose puerile column does absolutely nothing to inform public opinion or create an interesting discussion) completely ignores. Using a handle consistently forces a pseudonymous writer to be responsible and allows for careful debate. And of course there’s no guarantee that a name that appears real is, in actuality, the commenter’s name. One must also remember that Mr. Morford, like all print reporters, doesn’t really have an interest in the success of the Internet (oops, ad hominem attack!).

    I write and comment pseudonymously. Plenty of people know who I am. If I used my full name my Google existence would be overwhelmingly from blogs and not from the newspaper articles or professional work that bears my name. I don’t want potential employers finding my blogs, I want them finding my professional profile.

    Ultimately, Ms. Do is right that discouraging personal attacks promotes a better dialogue than somehow ID’ing everyone who wants to comment. A once-popular Oakland blog restricted commenters to their Google IDs almost two years ago. Since then, he’s probably had only a dozen comments.

    Comment by dto510 — February 19, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  14. The flip side, of course, DTO, is that signing your full name can pay dividends.

    I believe that signing my real name on blog posts has actually been key in establishing myself as a voice in the fray of Oakland politics. A year ago, I had nothing to do with the mess, today I have a rapidly growing collection of contacts at City Hall.

    Now it wasn’t just the blogging, but the blogging sure helped.

    My advice on what to do with trolls is simple: discredit and/or ignore. I do it all the time. One of those two strategies almost always works.

    If someone shows up on your blog making anonymous accusations, point out that they’re too chicken to say this stuff without hiding behind a pseudonym. Make counterarguments too. If they keep ranting, ignore them and ask your readers to to the same. Sooner or later they’ll get bored and go away.

    On the flipside, over at, there are honest, decent people who comment by pseudonym. Cops and firemen for starters. We wouldn’t hear a peep from them if they had to sign in full.

    Comment by Max Allstadt — February 19, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

  15. Online commenting enables such a range of public discussion, that I feel as if I ought to take the good with the bad. I used to get annoyed with people flaming each other, until it dawned on me that I didn’t have to read it.

    Anyway, I’m not sure how any online news source would be able to enforce a “full disclosure” policy.

    And something cute I noticed while reading a British news source online — the invitation to comment was worded as “Have your say”.

    Comment by DL Morrison — February 19, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

  16. the new Reply function is a little confusing. The time signature and position of Andy Currid’s post for example, indicates how it works. Not sure it works for me.

    I am not against the anonymous practice. I just think it is abused by many for reasons which are cowardly. Mike Rich, Matt Reid and Max Allstadt, also ANT and “Jack Richard” makes points I can agree with.

    Lauren, I was not under the illusion that one person often masquerades as a group, just pointing it out as one of the abuses afforded by anonymity and the internet.

    Comment by Mark Irons — February 20, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  17. The writer of the song made famous by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” wrote under a pen name. It was assumed for many years that the anti-lynching song was written by a black southerner. It was actually written by a white school teacher from NYC.

    Comment by AlamedaNayTiff — February 20, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

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