Should people who post comments on websites be allowed to be anonymous?
A few weeks ago I wrote a column focusing on an email from a reader I called Lil. She was seeking advice on what to do, if anything, after noticing a landscaper working on several luxury condominiums in her neighborhood had attached a hose to a public fire hydrant so he could water the newly laid sod in the front yard of the condos.
My advice was fairly straightforward and mostly involved checking with her city’s public works department to make sure the landscaper had permission to use the water. Her city happened to have a 311 number to call or an app to use to file such questions.
The online reader response to the column came swiftly. Some commenters agreed with Lil’s concern. Others suggested that perhaps the landscaper had permission and a temporary meter had been attached to the hydrant. But it was other commenters that led Lil to get back in touch and ask if I agreed with their assessment that she should mind her own business. One wrote “you go, Karen” using the in-vogue name used to describe people who are perceived to be do-gooders who get righteously indignant over petty issues. (Apologies to Karens everywhere.)
It’s not irrelevant that the commenters were not required to use their own names, and most hid behind an anonymous and sometimes goofy moniker. On some websites you can click on these names and see how many posts they’ve made on articles on the site so far. (The “you go, Karen” commenter had made 1,191 comments in seven months.)
I’ve written about allowing anonymous website comments before. I’m not a fan of anonymous posts online. The anonymity itself does not concern me. Readers might have any number of legitimate reasons to not want their names made public to a large readership. I still believe it shows more integrity to put your name behind the stands you take, but it remains an individual’s choice whether to do so or not on many sites, including the one I keep that’s associated with this column.
It seems wrong to allow anonymous comments if the commenter is using anonymity to avoid responsibility for being offensive, obnoxious, name-calling or shaming. Since many sites, including the one on which Lil saw herself told to mind her own business, allow readers to see other comments a poster has made, it seems relatively simple for the owner of the website to assess whether a commenter has a pattern of abusive comments. If they do, the site should consider removing the offensive comments or restricting the poster after making clear what crossed the line.
The website featuring Lil’s question also allows readers to “report” commenters for spam, profanity, abuse or harassment, misinformation, violence, inappropriateness and several other categories. If Lil believes any of the anonymous commenters fall into any of the categories, the right thing is for Lil or any reader believing similarly to report them. And the right thing for the website moderators is to take any such reports seriously even if it means losing a voluminous poster of anonymous and sometimes offensive reactions.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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