Ask someone what bothers them most about internet web forums. They’re likely to answer, “Anonymous posters. People who post comments under fake names.”
Recently, Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk on creativity and vulnerability prompted me to buy and read her book, “Daring Greatly.” In it, Brown describes her hurt over “anonymous posters” reacting to her TED Talk with their “mean spirited criticism that’s so rampant in Internet culture.” She asks web forum owners to “make users…use real names, and hold the community responsible for creating a respectful environment.”
For 16-years I was founder, owner, editor of Maine’s premier political web forum, AsMaineGoes.com (AMG). I support anonymous posting online and I will tell you why.
First of all, anonymous postings don’t bother people. Negative anonymous postings bother people. I’ve never known anyone upset over an anonymous poster praising their good works, wisdom, or good looks. It doesn’t happen.
Dr. Brown was hurt by cruel remarks about her weight, skin, fitness as a mother. Her common-sense solution to stop reading those anonymous comments is perfect. Not every web forum owner wants a respectful environment. Neither does every web forum community. But those who do can have a respectful environment AND anonymous posters.
AMG had zero tolerance for profanity for “real name” and anonymous posters. I wanted a web forum with spirited and civil debate. For most of its life AMG had no automatic word censor in place. It was possible for registered posters to post any language. But vulgarity happened only on the rarest occasions. When it did, it was fixed immediately by the community, me, or both.
Second, anonymity in public discourse is an American tradition. Think of the anonymous writers publishing pamphlets which influenced public thinking in the years leading up to the American Revolution. What has often been called the greatest political book, The Federalist Papers, was originally a series of newspaper essays meant to garner public support for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. All the essays were attributed to one fake author: Publius. The real writers were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
Third, when I was questioned on radio, t.v., or by print reporters about anonymous posters, I would remind them they were pots calling the kettles black.
Talk radio callers are identified by first name only, and sometimes by the town from which they’re calling: “John in Smithville. Go ahead, John. You’re on the air.” Do talk radio hosts or listeners ever ask if the caller is really John from Smithville? And does it matter? Yes, if John from Smithville is on air pretending to be author Stephen King or another well-known person. But if John from Smithville is, in fact, Bruce from Bangor, on air opposing higher gas taxes – who cares?
Ghostwriting is another longstanding, accepted form of anonymity. That’s when someone writes for someone else. For example, a newspaper column or a letter-to-the-editor.
Finally, how often do t.v., radio, and print news sources attribute stories to “unnamed sources,” or “someone who asked not to be identified”?
As AMG owner, to protect myself from liability, I knew the real identities of all AMG posters. That was a prerequisite for anyone registering to post. But I was also offering excellent posters a place to share with the public valuable information they could not, or would not, have shared under their real names. Usually because doing so might jeopardize their jobs.
Web forums can be an incredible means of bringing together people worldwide for sharing ideas, asking questions, teaching, learning. And if some of these people choose to share, to ask, to teach, to learn anonymously – do we say no to that opportunity? I think not.