Sunday, March 22, 2009

a rose by any other name

I was on a panel yesterday with a bunch of other folks about the future of newspapers, and inevitably the subject of blogs came up. As usual in these discussions, anonymity got its heaping helping of abuse. I tried to make the point (although I wasn't very articulate) that anonymity and pseudonymity are entirely different beasts. I doubt it had the slightest effect.

But M-M-M-My Pomona is my bully pulpit, so I'll develop the point here, particularly in light of Anonymous's feeling that conversation was getting out of hand the other day.

I'll defend the value of real anonymous posting (or commenting). There's nothing unethical about people who really, truly want to remain a disembodied voice, drifting in from nowhere, speaking their piece, and vanishing again. They're not very persuasive, but that's their choice.

That's true for commenting, anyway. The fact is, it's pretty darn hard to post anonymously. Once you've made two or three blog posts, you start building a persona, and readers start engaging with that persona, forming opinions about it, imagining the human being behind it. And what's true for a multiple-authored blog like this one is doubly true if you start your own; sooner or later, you'll have to refer to yourself by some name, and then all hopes of anonymity are gone. Your persona has a name.

The take-away point here, I think, is that when we participate in an online community, we stake the reputations of our personas. Opponents of so-called anonymous blogging huff and puff about accountability, but all bloggers risk the good opinion of others when they post, regardless of the name they do it under.

The only form of accountability that pseudonymous bloggers avoid is the kind that allows irate jerks to accost them at their homes or offices -- the kind that encourages retribution in an unrelated sphere. If I'm bloviating on the web, I'm happy to put my web-cred on the line, but don't be calling my boss and trying to get me fired for something I said online (unless, of course, I've dooced myself). What happens online should stay online.

Meanwhile, to stand up and speak at City Council or one of the commission meetings, you have to announce your full address on local tv, essentially. I don't mind doing it myself, but I do wonder whether that's advisable. It just takes one contentious issue and one intempterate dirtbag to create a situation. It would probably be wiser to keep the house number on the speaker slip but not on the microphone.


John Clifford said...

Actually, while I usually do so, the ruling was made some time back that there is no requirement that you state your address when speaking to the council. They encourage it, but you can still speak without stating it and they can't make you.

Sorry I missed the panel yesterday. I was planning on going, but personal issues precluded it. Sounded like an interesting subject.

They do need your name for the public record.

NOT ANONYMOUS, nor pseudonymous.

meg said...

I didn't realize that, John -- good to know.

Gilman said...

Actually the Brown Act prevents the City from even requiring your name.
The Act, which governs the City's handling of public meetings, states in part;

"A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body or local agency, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance."

However, most every City attempts to require folks to fill out speaker cards with much of the information that they are prevented from requiring....go figure?

meg said...

But doesn't the Brown Act refer just to attending meetings, rather than speaking at them?

tibbi said...

good post.

Anonymous said...

Don't many corporations engage in their own version of pseudonymity? For example, the Daily Bulletin is part of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which is owned by the MediaNews Group.

Here's a description of the MediaNews Group: one of the largest newspaper companies in the United States situated throughout California, the Rocky Mountain region and the Northwest. MediaNews Group is privately owned and operate nearly 60 daily newspapers in 12 states with combined daily and Sunday circulation of approximately 2.6 million and 2.9 million, respectively. Each newspaper maintains a Web site focused on local news content. These Web sites are hosted by MediaNews Group Interactive and are aggregated along with the Network's content under the umbrella site MediaNews Group also owns a television station, a CBS affiliate in Anchorage, AK and a radio station in Texas.

Does MediaNews Group see value in preserving the name of the local paper? Most certainly. Does the lack of local ownership affect accountability? Probably a little. In the end, I completely agree with Meg, it's the good opinion of others that we risk losing. Of course, bloggers may have no financial stake in preserving readership, so in the absence of a financial interest does that make them more or less likely to be forthright? Probably depends more on the blogger's character and less on the blogger's pseudonymity.

Just my two cents, and I'll respectfully remain anonymous.

meg said...

Anon, that's an excellent point. And corporate pseudonymity has the potential to be much more insidious than calling oneself Captain Cupcake or whatever. How many folks who purchase Burt's Bees lip balm realize they're dealing with Clorox Corp.?

[Mind you, I'm not squawking and flapping about how OMG I might be buying from a mega-corp! But it's far from transparent.]

Anonymous said...

What about choosing Seattle's Best Coffee as anti-Starbucks choice?

gilman said...

The Brown Act covers a wide range of issues related to public meetings. One of the key componets of the law is that citizens are allowed to address their legislative body at these meetings. Since participation can not occur unless someone "attends", I suspect it would be very difficult for an agency to legally justify requiring someone to identify themselves before speaking...
That said, they probably could require such identification when the speaker is seeking an entitlement vs. just voicing their opinions.

calwatch said...

I've been in front of council many times and never repeated my address out loud. Very few people do, actually. Usually Pomona resident is sufficient, unless I'm speaking on behalf of work or of the other community organization(s) I sometimes speak for.

calwatch said...

The only thing that is required to be on the sheet is a name. No one checks for ID. It could be John Doe, heck I could even show up as John Clifford and it would be up to the folks on the dais to realize that the person speaking is not John Clifford. For a while the Orrs had their poor daughter up there for her three minutes reading a script about how the DPOA was going to take food away from her table, or some such. People have had "meat puppets" fill city council and planning commiseration meetings. They use multiple email addresses to spam councilfolk with comments. Or they'll anonymize their voice with the magic of TDD Relay (which is a better use of the relay operator's time than some scam from Nigeria). etc.

John Clifford said...

Good comments Cal & Gilman. Yes, the form asks for address, organizational affiliation, phone number, but you don't have to fill any of it out. Of course most people won't know that. After all, if it's on a government form you're supposed to fill it out, right?

Early on in speaking on issues I realized that you should never fill in the "for or against" field on the form. Depending on how an issue is presented, you might think you're for it when you're against it (or vice versa). Leaving it blank allows you to say your piece without being declared ahead of time. I know that mayors hate that because they want to intersperse or group those for and against, but it hardly ever works out that way anyway.

Claremont Buzz said...

Hey, great discussion. Sorry for not commenting sooner.

Speaking as a blogger who's a little more anonymous than Meg, I'd have to agree with her point about the way people reading these things start to build an picture of the person behind the mask.

I may never have met you, yet after a year or so of following this blog, I've got my own ideas of your likes/dislikes, political views, tastes in food, ideas of urban renewal, and more. It doesn't matter whether you've used a name like John Clifford, or a pseudonym like Calwatch.

As Meg noted, there's is very little real anonymity after a while, especially in small communities. I'm sure people who really follow Pomona could figure out who Calwatch is, or at least could make some educated guesses.

Here in Claremont, everyone's got some idea of who Claremont Buzz is, some sort of mental image. Sure, a good number of those include fire-spouting nostrils, horns, and a three-headed dog, but they think they're on the right track, and we humor them.

A point I tried to make on our blog yesterday was that possessing names and faces doesn't prevent a group from misusing those identities for bullying. There's the whole idea of relational aggression, which I think has been honed to a fine stiletto point in Claremont.

I believe pseudonymity is a great counter to the sorts of abuses we've seen in Claremont because it takes away the ability of the named bullies to point to the face and say, "You don't need to believe that because X is saying it."

Ideally, removing X from the equation leaves the words and ideas being debated. And if those ideas are right enough of the time, are fairly and reasonably argued, and can be independently verified, can you really argue that they are not true?

Besides, no one's holding a gun to the reader's head forcing them to accept anything.

One thing other thing I would acknowledge is that over at the Claremont Insider having the blog closed to comments does prevent the sort of online community discussion that goes on here at M-M-M-My Pomona.

We chose early on to keep it closed because we didn't want to get swamped by the named and unnamed who wanted to shut us down. A couple months of our first year or so were spent fending off people like a former mayor who threatened a lawsuit (see our Diann Ring clock) or Claremont's City Attorney.

That first year at the Insider felt a lot like a digital Deadwood, where one wondered who would be gunning for you next.

So, for now, I'll keep on defending pseudonymity from behind this mask, at least until I can get these horns shaved down Hellboy-style.

Pride in Garfield Park said...

Great discussion. I see pros and cons to the anonymity thing.

On the one hand, names -- even pseudonyms -- provide a persona with which others can connect. And, in my admittedly idealistic mind, interpersonal connection and community building are the twin gems of civic interaction, regardless of whether that interaction takes place online at the blogs, in line at the market, or over a glass of wine at dba.

On the other hand, a dehumanized "anonymous" provides a perspective sans persona that I think, as suggested by Buzz, can tweak our assumptions just a bit (a good thing). And, I suspect people post anonymously for all sorts of reasons ranging from concern about retribution, a desire to be a jerk without having to be accountable, and even uncertainty about how to set up a moniker.

In full disclosure, I sometimes post anonymously when I'm in a rush and haven't bothered to sign in. Lazy, I know. Eventually I figured out I can just click "Name/URL" and type in a name or, follow Mark's lead, and post as anonymous but sign my name (ahem, my pseudonym) at the bottom.

John Clifford said...


Of course the X person(a) that doesn't know what they're talking about and shouldn't be taken serious could also be "Claremont Buzz." I don't think that anonymity helps completely in that scenario.

What, I think, it might do, is limit the personality to only the persona, so that you're not the guy with a beard or the woman who wears Birkenstocks, etc. All they can criticize you for IS your ideas. Me, they can criticize for my haircut, clothing choices, drinking habits, and how I chew.

Oh well . . .

Pride in Garfield Park said...

John, For what it is worth, I like your hair cut ;) Pride

calwatch said...

The other problem is, you get too famous, you get outed by some unhappy politician. Here's the case of an Alaskan who was outed by some douchebag legislator, using his state email address sending his constituent newsletter, who didn't like her criticism.