Sunday, March 23, 2008

On anonymity

Over the last couple of days, I’ve engaged in a long and tendentious exchange with an anonymous commenter to a Red Electric post about Obama’s Philadelphia speech last week.

“Anonymous” has chosen to address me as “Rick” repeatedly. There’s an implied familiarity, which I am unable to reciprocate because I have no idea who is writing.

Frankly, I find it annoying (being an annoyance may be the writer’s intention) and disingenuous to have an anonymous writer address me personally. Imagine getting a phone call from someone who doesn’t give you his or her name but who addresses you by yours.

Of course, anonymity has its uses, but I see them as being applicable only rarely to comments to a blog like this one.

To me, anonymity reflects an unwillingness for writers to take personal responsibility for their words. Such writers can’t be held to account for what they write, and so they can, and sometimes do, write anything. There is no way to know whether they believe what they write. (Having said that, I have no reason to believe that my current anonymous correspondent is insincere in his or her beliefs.)

On the other hand, you could argue that as long as the comments are opinion, and not statements of fact, there’s no real harm done. The words should be judged on their face value — never mind who wrote them.

By the way, I have sometimes referred to incidents and comments without naming the people involved because the names themselves aren't relevant.

So when else is anonymity justified?

In journalism, we try to avoid anonymous sources. The only time anonymity can be justified is when the use of a name might endanger the source or cost him or her a job. By the way, courts, by forcing journalists to reveal names of anonymous sources, undermine the ability of journalists to gather information from anonymous sources. If a journalist can’t ensure anonymity in the courtroom, sources dry up.

Of course, journalists also must satisfy themselves that the information given to them by anonymous sources is true. They often do so by finding corroborating, independent sources.

The other time anonymity is justified is when someone does a good deed or has a clever idea but doesn’t seek credit or publicity for it.

All of which has led me to think about how to treat anonymous comments to this site. Recently as “the site administrator,” I have been deleting pseudonymous comments that simply are links that turn out to be to commercial sites.

Now, to encourage correspondents to put their names on their words, I’m seriously considering deleting anonymous comments that don’t meet the above journalistic parameters.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this matter.

Please do not respond anonymously!

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Blogger Cristian said...

I left the anonymous comments. I really think you are being churlish. What difference does it make if I state my name or not? Anyone can invent a name if he/she wants to. What matters is if the comments are reasonable, in good taste and not slanderous or offensive. There is nothing that I wrote that could justify editing. I expressed, in what I believe was an intelligent and articulate manner, my objections to Senator Obama as a candidate for the Presidency. The issue that we should be discussing is the candidacy of Senator Obama, not the issue of anonymous comments. You set up this blog and you allowed anonymous comments. If you want to change the rules of the game, you can do so! You should not, in the meantime, criticize those of us who have posted anoymously for choosing an option that YOU have given us! I apologize for taking the liberty of addressing you by your first name. At the risk of being blunt, I think you don't like my opinions and are looking for a way to be difficult.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

Glad to meet you, Cristian.

The difference knowing your name makes to me is that it makes you more "real" and approachable to me, just as your knowing my name (and something about me) gives you a way to address me more directly and to understand me better.

I kept open the anonymous option to encourage comment. I value opinion highly.

As I've said, what bothered me was your familiar direct address and the "right-wrong" judgmental tone you used. "Right" and "wrong" (and HOW right and HOW wrong) are in the eyes of the beholder.

But we agree on one "right." You are right when you say that nothing you wrote justifies editing. And I think you make your case passionately and honestly.

I don't dislike your opinions. I appreciate them and welcome them.

Sure I disagree with several of them. And in judging Obama, I feel you give way too much weight to some of the points we actually agree on.

I believe you and others are trying to hang an albatross around Obama's neck. I don't think its justified; you clearly do. We can only wait to see whether it works — which won't prove it was the right thing to do.

Out of curiosity, just who are you supporting? Have you found a candidate who meets your high standards? It can't be easy. There are plenty of skeletons in the closets of all three major candidates. I hope the 2008 campaign isn't decided based on dragging them out and picking through the bones. There are far more serious things to examine and weigh.

I hope you will continue to write and comment here, Cristian. I'm happy to share this space with you.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Cristian said...

Rick, not all things are in the eyes of the beholder. If that were the case, we could have no rules and no laws. What we deem right and wrong may change over time though I would argue that there are certain objective truths. Still society must come to some consensus as to what it considers right. If I am "judgmental" it is because I and millions of other Americans must make a judgment as to whether Obama and the other candidates are qualified for office. Am I trying to hang an albatross around Obama? I don't have to! He has done it to himself. I was never an Obama supporter however whatever doubts I had were eliminated when the Trinity United Church of Christ story broke and I saw the sly way in which Obama avoided dealing with it. You ask who I am supporting. I would vote for Ron Paul if I could however just as the media have thrown their biased support behind Obama, they refused to give Paul a voice. I find myself, once again, facing a voting dilemma. I have been opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning. At the same time I recognize that we are now there and I don't see how we can get out too quickly (and I don't believe that any of the three candidates will act much differently with regard to Iraq). At this point I may reluctantly vote for McCain. If Hillary is the Democratic candidate I might vote for the Libertarians. If Obama is the Democratic candidate I will probably vote for McCain. My intuition tells me that despite his hawkish rhetoric McCain is a well balanced and competent leader who will use good judgment.

7:22 PM  

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