Time to get tough: Managing anonymous reader comments

[Editor’s note: The Washington Post’s decision to shut down comments on its editors’ blog — following an uproar over its ombudsman’s error in describing the Washington lobbying scandal — has reopened the debate over how websites should handle reader comments. Particularly anonymous ones.

Industry consultant Vin Crosbie posted this essay Tuesday to the Online News Association‘s e-mail discussion list. We republish an edited version here as an instructive lesson to online news publishers struggling with how to solicit and manage informative and responsible reader content.]

“Silence Dogood” has been pointed to as the mother of a rich history of anonymity in American journalism. What is true is that between April and October of 1722 New England Courant Publisher James Franklin printed 14 articles that had been slipped under his door.

The author “Silence Dogood” claimed to be the widow of a country minister, but Franklin suspected the name was a pseudonym for someone else. It was common for eighteenth century journalists, including Franklin’s, to use pseudonyms when writing articles that the authorities might have been considered to be libelous or illegal.

Historical records infer that James Franklin knew the identities of his other pseudonymous contributors, but not that of “Silence Dogood.” That failing was perhaps one of many reckless publishing decisions by Franklin, who soon served jail time for his own writings in the Courant and who the Boston authorities later banned from publishing newspapers. He was meanwhile not amused to learn that “Silence Dogood” was actually his 16-year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin Franklin.

Unlike James Franklin, American Weekly Mercury Publisher Andrew Bradford of Philadelphia knew before publication that “Caelia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” were pseudonyms for Ben Franklin, who had fled Boston and joined Bradford’s employ.

When Franklin himself later became a newspaper publisher, he occasionally published his own articles under the pseudonyms “Anthony Afterwit” and “Alice Addertongue.” Yet the “Richard Saunders” of the eponymous book “Poor Richard’s Almanac” was probably publisher Ben Franklin’s best-known, self-permitted pseudonym.

There is a rich history of pseudonymity in American opinion journalism. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote “The Federalist Papers” using the pseudonym “Publius,” but not without their publisher’s prior permission and knowledge of their true identities. A more recent example occurred in 1947 when the publisher of Foreign Affairs granted the Moscow-based American diplomat George Kennan the pseudonym “X” to write the renowned political essay proposing the geographic containment of Communism.

Though I can’t think of a current American periodical that regularly grants pseudonyms to its writers, the British publishers of the Financial Times and The Economist regularly grant them for some of their columnists.

In all the examples I’ve mentioned, the publishers not only knew the pseudonymous writers’ true identities but also vetted the writers’ submissions before publication. That’s a far cry from publishing anonymous blog postings.

Though there is a rich history of pseudonymity in American journalism, there is none of anonymity. It has long been understood that if the publisher of a reputable periodical grants a writer use of a pseudonym, then that publisher knows the writer’s true identity and takes responsibility — legal and otherwise — for that writer’s words.

Printed periodicals grant pseudonymity but never anonymity. Imagine the cacophony that would result if printed periodicals published unvetted, unreviewed, anonymous Letters to the Editor or Op-Ed essays.

Yet we’re now discussing how some of those periodicals are doing the equivalent of that online. Should there really be any surprise that many of those comments are scatological, obscene, or libelous?

Publishing anonymous, unvetted, and unreviewed commentary online is hugely divergent from the policies of those publications’ print editions. It’s a different kettle of fish, one that can stink for the publishers. Indeed, those publishers and their new-media managers are being reckless. And if you think I’ve used too strong a word, poll newspaper libel lawyers and libel insurers.

Yes, the topic of anonymity is certainly worth discussing again and again. But we do realize that, for human reasons, the topic has not evolved during the past 10 years despite the evolution of technology. This topic is substantially the same as it was when the first open bulletin boards were posted on the Web in 1996 or when the first proprietary online service user forums went online years earlier. Online news managers who don’t know its history are doomed to relive it.

Although the technologies of this medium evolve with the speed of “Moore’s Law,” the actual laws and liabilities governing the technologies evolve about as fast as the eponymous Gordon Moore can walk (he celebrated his 77th birthday this month). That is because the mechanical topic of technology and the human topic of ethics seemingly aren’t related to each other. Although we may strive to offer bulletin boards and commentary fields where people might provide thoughtful and ethical comments without scatology, obscenity, or libel, we cannot and will not achieve that through technology alone.

What I’m about to state might seem farfetched, but a decade of studying online news media leads me to fear that it is true. I fear that our industry has fallen under the spell of a techno-utopian fallacy that says we can foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity simply by implementing new-media technologies.

We implement technology that permits absolutely anonymous and spontaneous publication of people’s comments and we expect the majority of those comments will be decent, civil, and legal. We implement technology that allows readers to correspond with reporters and we expect those reporters will answer those readers’ e-mails. We implement technology that allows readers themselves to report the news and we expect that they will report a significant percentage of all stories in the future. We implement such technologies and our publishers expect that it all should be completely automated and not need extra supervisory or moderation staffing. And if a problem develops, we expect newer technology alone to solve it.

Yet we live in the real world, not a techno-utopian virtual world. Our real online environment is infested with spams, scams, phishers, filthy ranters, and libelous demagogues. The wonderful technologies we’ve implemented actually attract and facilitate them. (If technologies existed that permitted anonymous, unvetted, and unmoderated letters to be published in printed publications, then scatological, obscene, and libelous letters to the editor would appear there, too.)

Technology alone cannot foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity. What we need are policies and practices to govern how our readers utilize these online technologies.

I realize that fans of “We Media” and “We the Media” (particularly those who think that mainstream media “talks down” to readers) might flinch at my using the phrase “govern how our readers utilize.” But media cannot offer transparency to the readers unless the readers are also willing to be transparent. If “News is a Conversation,” then transparency is required among all participants in that conversation, including the readers.

Radicals might claim that the news media must be absolutely subordinate to the readers. Yet just as the government must be subordinate to its citizens, no citizen can claim rights beyond the compact of government. If the readers are to govern how media operates, them no reader who wants to interact with the media should claim rights beyond that which the readers themselves demand from the media.

Why do so many otherwise pragmatic people in our industry think that their only choice is between accepting unmoderated and anonymous comments or else accepting none at all? I think this is because absolutism is part of the dogma of the techno-utopian fallacy. The choice about publishing comments needn’t be an all-or-nothing decision. The true path is in the middle of those extremes.

If you’re going to let someone publish something in your publication, whether in print or online, know their identity and read their submission before its publication. If they truly are willing to stand behind their words, then they must be willing to withstand identification by the publisher who has legal responsibility for the publication of their words.

If they request that the publisher disguise or omit their identity in publication, let them first provide the publisher with a cogent reason. (The publisher should state somewhere on the page’s boilerplate that a writer’s name may be withheld for reasons but only after prior identification.)

Yes, I know that this will create work for the online publishing staff. Tough. If you want to offer your readers the facility to comment, then you must adequately staff that facility or else cacophony can result, as it has in many cases. Publishers are deluded by the techno-utopian fallacy if they think that just because this facility involves computers it should operate autonomously and without staff moderation and supervision. There is no free lunch online.

You may have to identify by phone or e-mail the readers who submit comments, or perhaps you can build a registration system that adequately does this. You may also be able to build a system that filters out scatological or obscene terminology, but you should still review the submissions that survive those filters. Trust your readers, but don’t do so blindly. Blindness doesn’t foster transparency.

If a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity is ever to be fostered, it must happen responsibly and without absolutism. Rights are also responsibilities. We have responsible free speech, not absolute free speech (don’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless there actually is a fire). You are irresponsible to your publisher, readers, transparency, and journalism if you offer absolute anonymity and spontaneous publication in your comments sections. You might get away with it for a while, but not forever.

About Vin Crosbie


  1. Vin– I’ll say it in the open: well said. It is indeed a false dichotomy that has been presented by the Blog Boosters.

    What’s also been ignored in the Media Pundit coverage is that blog comments– unthreaded, and often unsigned– represent a step backwards for online discussions. The degree to which inadequate technologies are used by blogs is astounding. If media sites are going for quantity rather than quality just to draw in more eyeballs, that’s an unfortunate choicse.

    See my further comments on the Code of Conversations.

  2. Vin,

    I think you’ve missed an important point in your discussion. Your proposal is sound so long as online is to be no more than print, no different. Libel laws grew out of a time when one way mass communication could not be easily countered by those libeled. Also, the economics of that one way mass communication created a necessity, economic if not other, to ensure what appeared in print was true and so my grandmother believed it if she saw it in print.

    Online is different enough, provides a passage over those previous barriers, that we shouldn’t respond to the ranters and the libelous with print methods. So what if a blow-hard gets online and spews nonsense, libelous, obscene or otherwise? The technology provides a means to show that in a different space, without the inherent credibility of the older print form. And it provides for the target – and a hundred others – to respond within minutes…when a response is deemed worthwhile.

    One of our arts critics took exception to the number of strings used by our Symphony and no less than the maestro himself responded with a wonderful explanation of how he’d agonized over the choice and decided to stage it as Beethoven performed it and not as he wrote it down. Meanwhile, a gadfly picks at another of our writers, eliciting comments from bystanders. It’s easy to distinguish one respondent from another.

    In this age and online, credibility has to be earned. Why stop the free flow of all ranges of communication? We should be encouraging more, not less, finding new ways to represent communication in all its facets, not restrict the flow. Afterall, it was the printing press that made one’s words, written down one time, available to many. Online provides new possibilities as rich.

    Mark S. Burgess
    sandiego.com, Inc.

  3. It does not seem to me to serve anyone’s interests for the media to indulge the current fashion for schoolyard tantrums masquerading as freedom of commentary. No one is talking here about censoring opinion. But I don’t think it is unreasonable to require commenters to behave responsibly, respectfully and with civility, or to be prepared to enforce that requirement when it becomes necessary.

    On the contrary, I believe that the online media will be doing our democracy a very great favor by playing host to a return to civil and intelligent discourse on issues. On a certain level, our democracy is founded on a belief in our transcendent rationality. When people stop being rational, when their ability to discuss their differences in a rational and civil fashion begins to erode, they become much more easily manipulated (just ask any marketer) and much more inclined to tolerate and even encourage mob rule.

    I’m all in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I’m not in favor of falling in love with the technology to the extent that you’re willing to be irresponsible, and that goes for readers and the media alike.

  4. There’s no more important issue today than civilized online journalists and writers taking time to guard over the sanctity of their projects on the world wide web.

    If readers making comments are given the irresponsible gate of anonymity then all matters of bad taste should be expected to rise to the surface. There’s too many opportunists out there looking for mischief and mayhem. As journalists, we could all stay busy clearing the clutter instead of focusing on writing our own good work.

    Clearing the board of ridiculous statements is just part of the work we must do to create a responsible press in an endless virtual world. It’s more work for each of us but it’s worth it in the end.

    As the future gains momentum high quality online journalism should nip this open unfair style of communicating as quickly as possible in its own unhonorable bud.

  5. Robin Baker says:

    I am continuously surprised that journalists are in such constant nervous agitation over blogs and those that contribute to them. While Vin makes some good points about

  6. Tom Grubisich says:

    I hope Vin Crosbie’s essay against widespread anonymity on message boards prompts everyone involved with creating community on the Internet to think about a cure. In almost all cases, anonymity doesn’t build community, it harms it. The words of Gordon Joseloff, editor and publisher of WestportNow, presented in this space last October, deserve to be repeated: “…after more than two and a half years of allowing anonymous comments, we did go to requiring users to register and to use real names. It was not as easy decision, but…I could no longer allow WestportNow to be used for anonymous sniping and personal attacks –

  7. Good points from all of you. Robin, I agree particularly with all you said.

    However, I must admit that when I wrote the “publishing anonymous blog postings,” I was actually thinking not just about blogs but also about commentary on mainstream media sites. I apologize for being unclear there.