Danville Express

Perspective - September 28, 2007

Message from the publisher: The blessing and curse of online anonymity

The popularity of our online Town Square forum has grown in the last few months. The forums allow for immediate discourse among participants on any number of subjects. Visitors can get on their soapboxes about everything from the latest movie to current events and they never have to leave the comfort of home.

One part of the Weekly's mission is to get community members talking among themselves and to us by opening the lines of communication. However, in addition to opening up the lines of communication, online forums such as Town Square also open up a big can of worms.

We recently received an e-mail requesting the forum "rules." Primarily this requestor was interested in anonymous posts and those written under pseudonyms.

In print we have always required letters to the editor include the author's name, phone number and address. Sometimes we call to verify the authorship. Old-school journalists (myself included) have been taught that opinions, facts and quotes must be attributed. And shouldn't people stand behind their opinions? If it's not worth signing your name to, then it can't be relevant, right?

On the other hand, how many opinions, ideas and comments have been squelched because of the writer's fear of mockery, hostility or even retribution?

New media means new rules and a new way of thinking. To open up the lines of communication, journalists have been forced to embrace anonymity. Or at least endure it. It goes against every fiber of our journalistic beings because we equate anonymous forum post to unnamed sources, which are taboo.

Alas, anonymous posts do have some merit as they can bring to light issues that otherwise would have remained in the dark. (Remember "Deep Throat"?) However, just as with unnamed sources, one must question the authenticity of the statements. Questionable authenticity and the fact that posts are immediate (without editing) are two facts that make editors cringe.

This immediacy, though, has provided an opportunity to witness another nuance of new media: "self-editing" and "self-correcting" - where the forum users correct and question. For example, we once had a post that blasted a local restaurant for its food and service. Several other visitors spoke up in defense of the restaurant - the number of which outweighed the one bad report. We also have had posters correct facts, submit different facts, and ask questions to garner more information.

This "self-editing" works for anonymous posts, too. We have noticed that if a topic is getting too many posts that seem to be coming from one person using different names, or one person is just monopolizing the conversation, the self-correction is that the topic dies. Nobody wants to read or respond to a meaningless diatribe, especially if it seems to be a schizophrenic debate between a poster and his pseudonym.

Do I believe comments posted with the author's true identity are more credible? Yes. But have I received information or a lead from an anonymous source that otherwise would have never surfaced? Yes.

So at the Danville Weekly we choose to focus our attention on the conversation, facts and tone as opposed to the identity of the poster. But we question authenticity and accuracy, and encourage you to do the same.

Gina Channell-Allen, a 20-year journalism veteran, is the publisher of the Danville Weekly. Send questions to gallen@danvilleweekly.com.


Posted by Hal Bailey, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 4, 2007 at 2:12 pm

Thank you, Gina,

As one of a few requesting your guidelines for the Town Square Forum, I appreciate your very well-considered support of an open, public voice. Many have learned to fear Contra Costa political reprisal when voicing opinions, desires and positions. As a result, a few have posted the opinion of many to protect the confidentiality of the actual authors.

Among the e-chains of Alamo neighborhoods, it is common for individuals to use their given name and mother's maiden name as identity and a secondary e-mail address at yahoo, hotmail or similar. Although the names are used consistently in public blogs and similar, the result is still confidentiality.

More importantly, it is a common political campaign technique to ghost write letters to the editors for submission to editors under several supporters' names. Such campaign PR simply becomes obvious in its repetition, lack of real content, and lack of original thought or consideration.

Thus, allowing opinion to be voiced without loss of confidentiality is a step toward broader opinions being voiced by a more diverse audience.



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