Saturday, June 30, 2007

Anonymity, Credibility, and Civil Discourse

I recently ran into a fellow CCP member at the grocery store, and, before I even mentioned the blog, she apologized for not posting. "It seems like bloggers get attacked, and I don't want to get attacked," she explained. I couldn't argue the point.

Here at BlogCCP, we've had our first heated thread, featuring a little name-calling and an anonymous commenter.

The first heated thread of a blog is kind of like a baby's first tooth. There's a lot of fussiness and slime, but no real harm is done, and it shows that we're ready to chew on some meatier topics.

The issue of whether to allow anonymous commenters was a difficult one for those of us involved in setting up this blog. From his comments in the heated thread, you can see that our President has some concerns about anonymous commenters, and feels that they can drag down the level of discourse. I agree with him about the risks, but feel strongly that the upside of allowing free conversation offsets the downside. The compromise reached was that we only allow personally signed posts, but comments may be anonymous or pseudonymous.

Anonymity and its close cousin, pseudonymity, have played an important role in political discourse historically. Benjamin Franklin and George Orwell wrote under pseudonyms. Many of the pamphleteers who helped inspire the Revolutionary War published their work anonymously.

Anonymity and pseudonymity are useful tools in today's interconnected world. If my career ambition were to become a federal judge, I would be wiser to publish my thoughts without my name, and avoid having to defend an off-the-cuff comment to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Similarly, many of us have employers, clients or customers who may be stumble across a post and take offense, to our financial and professional detriment.

Also, my friend in the grocery store is a thoughtful, intelligent woman. If she were able to blog anonymously or pseudonymously, she might be posting insightful posts in this space now.

As Bough points out, though, attaching your name to your thoughts demonstrates a certain level of commitment. When Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, he signed in large print so King George III could read it without his glasses.

Using your name does not necessarily grant credibility. Only a history of accuracy and thoughtfulness will accomplish that goal. Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh demonstrate that some people's credibility sinks beneath the level of anonymity. They have soiled their reputation by repeatedly engaging in false, inflammatory attacks.

If you want to write a convincing comment, it makes sense to avoid personal attacks and focus on the substance. Similarly, criticizing a commenter for posting anonymously is not very persuasive without a demonstration that the points made by that person were flawed.

I hope we have a lot of lively conversation on this blog, and that a tone of respectful persuasion prevails. So far, I'd say we're doing pretty well . . .


Stephen Bough said...


Very well said. The history of anonymity is important. Then again, we are not in a war with England.

Name calling - i.e. liars - is just not acceptable. When we scare off intelligent people from posting because they know that some bloggers hide in the shadows, attack and insult, we have missed the point. The insulting by some in the on-line community defeats the hope of intelligent debate.

I will remain critical of anonymous posters who insult folks. An anonymous insulter has no - zero - credibility. That person's opinion are not persuasive. An anonymous insulter is not contributing to the debate, only detracting. The anonymous insulter scares of the intelligent CCP member you saw in the store.

Dan - you and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. Your logic, however, is extremely powerful and that is why I backed the decision to allow anonymous insulters on the site. I will continue to fight back because intelligent discourse is needed.

Steve Glorioso said...

Anonymous posters are a menance to the exchange of ideas. The Star FINALLY did what other responsible newspapers did from the start, at least try to greatly reduce the anonymous attacks. This is just another reason right wing talk radio can be so demeaning. Steve and Dan are right, if you have to take "credit" for your postings, it should reduce name calling, etc. I expect most CCP members feel the same way.I hope everyone practices what they preach.

Steven Bough/Stephen Gloriosoe said...

Actually, this is Dan - I hijacked your names and spelled them wrong to make a point. Like it or not, there's a whole lot of chicanery that can go on at blogs. "Sock puppets", for example, can be used to give yourself a hallelujah chorus - and I'm pretty sure that's being done on a few sites. False names are easy to create, as well. If I create an online identity for "Dan Johnson", who's going to know the difference?

The point is not to try to ban or universally criticize anonymous commenters. It can't work without squelching a whole lot of voices. The point is to look at their persuasiveness. One of our commenters here is a fine example. "Nitwit" often writes comments that are inaccurate and abrasive, but sometimes he provides facts and analysis to support rational arguments. Either way, though, he's at least participating in the discussion. He's certainly not a menace to the exchange of ideas, even when he's being an ass.

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