Jeff Ward: If You Can't Put Your Name on It, It Ain't Worth Saying!
It's time to put an end to Internet anonymity.
Internet anonymity needs to go, and it needs to go now!
Last week, I called Samantha Liss to determine the content of a reader response she’d removed from my column. Comments that don’t make the cut are typically the wackiest ones, and I was hoping to have a good laugh with our esteemed Glen Ellyn Patch editor.
Samantha echoed the lament of so many Patch editors who aren’t sure exactly when to pull that delete trigger. Get too crazy and you kill the conversation. But a too laissez-faire approach can lead to a few nameless loudmouths dominating the debate, which can cause a mass exodus of readers.
Why is it that it’s the silliest of subjects that tend to set people off the most? I’m afraid to even say the phrase “fire pits!” In Glen Ellyn, attempting to install lights at Glenbard West High School’s Memorial Field was more than enough to set some folks off the deep end. Of course, the worst comments always seem to come at the hands of those “courageous” folks who insist on employing an alter ego.
And that’s exactly where the trouble starts: anonymity.
In a recent Geneva Patch column on our ineffectual new pedestrian crosswalk law, we discussed what automobile-induced quasi-invisibility can do to the average driver. But as scary as that can be, that social-norm-dissolving situation pales in comparison to the effects of Internet invisibility.
And what does this say about us? That, like a quantum particle, our veneer of civilization and respectability only exists as long as someone’s observing us?
Samantha submitted the Glen Ellyn Bulletin Board as a prime example of online commentary gone wild. Considering the stupidity I read there, I won’t justify the forum’s absurd existence with a link.
The only journalism award I’ve ever won (and I had to share that one with then-Beacon-News Managing Editor Rick Nagel) was an honorable mention for religion reporting. Rick and I told the story of a group of Geneva parishioners who had challenged their monsignor and how the ensuing factional fighting was tearing the church apart.
But what was far worse than a subtle parish civil war was a website orchestrated by the group who supported the monsignor. These “good church-going folks,” under a veil of fictitious names, tore into their fellow parishioners like a monkey on a cupcake.
You’d think that’s about as low as anyone could go until you realize that public officials are using online aliases to strike back at their “enemies.” More than one Patch editor has conveyed their suspicions regarding this phenomenon. When I first started taking on some Kane County insiders, a small group of political cyberstalkers started dogging my every Beacon-News move.
The funny thing is, they’re fooling no one. I’ve always had a pretty good idea who they were. A piece of writing—even something as short as a Patch comment—is not unlike a fingerprint. Because it’s so difficult to consciously change your writing style, some folks use the same phrasing in both public and private discussions.
The speed with which they had certain information also limited the commenter pool to a shallow group of nitwits.
So, let me take this opportunity to remind these petulant and cowardly politicians that, as a Daily Herald court case just taught us, it isn’t very difficult to pierce the veil of anonymity, and libel laws don’t exclude things said on the Internet.
Thankfully, because of the very circumstances we’re discussing here, an increasing number of Net news outlets are requiring readers to use their real names.
Yes! I’ve heard from readers who fear that putting their names on the Net is far too dangerous. That’s a load of you-know-what. I’ve been writing controversial columns for six years, and I’m still here. That kind of faulty logic is actually a form of conceit. As much as I love each and every reader, neither you nor I are that important.
If you do insist on using an alias, at least make it a good one. “Al Truistic?” “Cornelious Cornswallow?” “John Locke?” For some strange reason, I fail to believe that an 18th century English philosopher came back to life just to pursue his dream of posting his thoughts on Patch.
Though “Mr. Locke” often makes excellent and very cogent comments, in the end, he's like the 7-year-old who, after calling a playmate a nincompoop, runs behind his mother’s dress and hides.
The bottom line is this. I love writing for Patch because no other venue provides this kind of direct link to readers. Though my motto has always been “continuing the conversation,” some of you have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, but I don’t know who you are.
And as much as it pains me to say this, if you don’t offer me the same courtesy, I will be forced to ignore your posts.
By all means, and within the bounds of reason, let’s keep the conversation going. I love hearing what you’re thinking. It doesn’t get any better than the discussion following my Wheaton College column.
But, as I also like to say, if you can’t find the fortitude to put your real name on it, then it ain’t worth saying.