Lost in cyberspace

Anonymity and cold keystrokes can lead to a loss of humanity online

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Across the country, websites – particularly news sites – have struggled with “anonymous comment” posters. How do you balance a robust debate with the need to be civil?


“My partners and I are all for online civility,” one website purveyor wrote to the New York Times, “but we are not willing to sacrifice a robust public forum to achieve it.”

That seems to be the prevailing notion, and that’s a good thing. When done with care, anonymous comments can breathe life into the republic by giving voice to those who might otherwise remain silent for fear of retribution or rebuke. In other countries, anonymity can be the difference between life and death, liberty or captivity.

Of course, when people take advantage of their invisibility to issue ad hominem attacks on others, it can make cyberspace as cold and uninhabitable as outer space.

But where does it say that “anonymous” has to be the opposite of “civil”?

If you were well-bred – taught manners by the adults in your life – then why shouldn’t those manners be extended to strangers in all sorts of circumstances, including on the Internet?

One supposes it’s easier to be kind to strangers on the street, simply because you are reminded by their appearance that they are, indeed, human. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact when all that passes between us is keystrokes and clicks.

We were reminded of that recently, when The Chronicle’s Editorial Department invited several of our regular anonymous commenters to the newspaper to meet us and participate in a short project we had in mind.

We may yet do it, but were prevented initially due to the fact that each of our commenters had to cancel due to health concerns in their families. We assured them that our thoughts and prayers were with them, and wished them well.

But we came away with a few residual thoughts.

First, it was a joy to correspond with some of our most devoted readers over what amounted to a social invitation, rather than the news of the day.

Second, we’ve long felt that our regular “letters to the editor” writers were like extended family, but it’s true, too, of our regular visitors online.

And, again, it was a nice reminder that we’re all much more than our Internet nicknames and our differing opinions on the state of the world. Regardless of what our readers think of the events of the day, or what our commenters post about us, we value them as fellow travelers and human beings.

If we all remembered that, we’d be a lot more civil to each other. Moreover, when someone isn’t so polite to us, we can always decide how to respond – and responding with patience and understanding, while not always easy, is never a mistake.

All of us who trade opinions on a daily basis feel very passionate about them. But we always need to remember there’s a human being on the other end.

Comments (49) Add comment
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scoopdedoop64
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scoopdedoop64 02/28/12 - 11:46 pm
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Great letter! I would love to

Great letter! I would love to partipate in such a group in person. I have always tried to conduct myself as if everyone knew who I was because manners matter.

Austin Rhodes
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Austin Rhodes 02/28/12 - 11:48 pm
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Um...right Scoop. What an

Um...right Scoop.

What an odd coincidence that they all had someone get sick at the same time. You sure all of your commenters were not just ONE dude?

Retired Army
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Retired Army 02/29/12 - 01:07 am
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Funny, I didn't get an

Funny, I didn't get an invitation and I'm real regular, not to mention a paying customer.

I'd have paid for my own lunch and maybe put the sickness and health thing aside.

TParty
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TParty 02/29/12 - 01:14 am
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I too would like to

I too would like to participate in such a group.

I'll just comment on this real quick "One supposes it’s easier to be kind to strangers on the street"

I believe this to be false. Yesterday was an article about a guy stopping some jerk from breaking into his neighbors home. I was surprised someone did the right thing, that someone acted. How often do we watch some camera capture a human in need, and public people just walk past without a care, ignoring the incident, or just pulling out their phone to record the event? The apathy is not just contained on the interweb.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 02/29/12 - 05:37 am
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Yeah, right Austin, we all

Yeah, right Austin, we all make up many names. But actually there are three real people posting under many different names. One is conservative, one liberal and one who points out your misinformation, over and over.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 02/29/12 - 06:00 am
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I would like to remind the

I would like to remind the editors, it's an interesting phenomenon when you look at Internet commenters as anonymous with no feeling in their keystrokes. It could be some of the conduct of the Chronicle (and public officials) towards these PEOPLE is because that's how THEY look at Internet commenters when there actually may be much feeling and decency behind these electronic blips.

It's been my experience y'all have been the ones not showing respect and using our anonymity as some kind of excuse. In all honesty, I've been much nicer to Chronicle staff than they've been to me. And I know you don't want me to say more.

Y'all love me when things are going your way, but when I point out things you don't want to hear, I'm a cowardly, Internet poster, blah, blah, blah.

So from this point on, I propose both sides agree to treat the other with respect... something sorely needed HERE.

seenitB4
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seenitB4 02/29/12 - 07:36 am
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1
It isn't easy being easy is

It isn't easy being easy is it....I've always wanted to hear all sides & usually we do on here..
But let me say this...the posters make this place interesting....& without THEM it wouldn't be the same.
I think we should show respect for both sides & I try to "most" of the time..
We come here for the news but we also come for some entertaining...we all have enough sadness & everyday problems with us everyday..
The back/forth with the comments really is an education of sorts.....some on here REALLY make me think...I should say THINK!!
When we lose a poster it really is like losing a good friend....I know it isn't easy for AC.....they have a job-they want to print the news-they can't satisfy all.........well neither can a poster...
We know taxpayers are hurting & when they see large $$$ going out for unbelievable projects it blows their mind.....mine too.....sometimes I avoid some threads because it really is a losing battle....
I can get depressed all by myself.....I love my online friends.......I don't want ANY to go away....even the ones I disagree with sometimes...

seenitB4
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seenitB4 02/29/12 - 07:45 am
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I can understand why some

I can understand why some wouldn't show up for AC lunch.......& it has nothing to do with disliking AC...

robaroo
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robaroo 02/29/12 - 08:01 am
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While I agree with some need

While I agree with some need for civility (some posters more than others), posting should remain anonymous. People like Austin Rhodes can use their name if they want to.

Some people would be more reluctant to post if they knew they could be accosted by acquaintances.

Techfan
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Techfan 02/29/12 - 08:02 am
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I did get an invite from

I did get an invite from 21st. Not being one to check my email regularly (mainly because I don't communicate with my friends that way so it's mostly ads from people I've done business with, facebook notifications that I've already read on facebook, and the occasional abuse warning from the AC) I didn't read it until a couple of days ago. I was very willing to participate, but must have missed the deadline. I applaud the AC for trying to do something like this and hope they try again.

scoopdedoop64
3264
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scoopdedoop64 02/29/12 - 09:51 am
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Austin, are you making some

Austin, are you making some reference that I don't? I know you have on several occasions stated your disapproval for those of us who use a different name than our own. As far as manners go the fact that you use your real name and even have your own radio show does not seem to make a difference. You can become quite belligerent at times. By the way you do make a good point about everybody being sick at once could mean they had only one commenter.

Willow Bailey
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Willow Bailey 02/29/12 - 11:59 am
2
1
Austin, reference your 10:48

Austin, reference your 10:48 p.m. Just wanted to let you know, that the three commenter’s who experienced family illnesses were not the same person. The reason I know is that I am one of them and I can assure you that I neither post as Sargebaby nor Cobalt George, (though I do love and respect both of them). Just Willow...plain and simple Willow. I called your show for the first time a few weeks ago. You were very polite to me, but, cut me off before I could complete making my point. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to comment on your show and enjoyed the exchange. And I gave my real name:)

And, maybe the next time I call in, I should say it's Willow, so you will "know" me.

itsanotherday1
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itsanotherday1 02/29/12 - 10:40 am
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What you see is what you get

What you see is what you get with me. I write like I converse, for better or worse. River makes an excellent point about mutual civility.

seenitB4
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seenitB4 02/29/12 - 10:51 am
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anotherday...I kinda felt we

anotherday...I kinda felt we were getting the REAL you..hahah..:)

Wouldn't want it any other way!

Willow Bailey
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Willow Bailey 02/29/12 - 11:07 am
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There is something really

There is something really nice about being a part of the regular commenter’s who not only enjoy sharing opinions and experiences, but also work towards developing a real friendship. Some of the nicest people I meet, are right here, blogging away in the AC and many have become family to me. I think of them every day and care about what is going on in their lives. They are the people that I trust with my real identity. As far as others knowing my real name, all of my family and friends and even my pastor knows my online name. I try to not say anything about anyone or to anyone that I would not say to their faces. It wasn't always like this for me though, in the beginning days, I said something’s that I regretted to another poster regarding a strong difference of opinion. I later took responsibility for it, apologized to them, and asked for another chance to get to know them. I almost missed an opportunity to know a wonderful person.

Bizkit
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Bizkit 02/29/12 - 11:42 am
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I've tried to be civil on the

I've tried to be civil on the AC and Wikipedia, but unfortunately it isn't often met with a similar retort. Although like anyone else my dander has gotten the better of my dandy. Still lots of posters have been censored or banned. I always thought Bizarro was civil yet he was banned for a faux pas.

Jake
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Jake 02/29/12 - 11:47 am
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Just a thought, instead of

Just a thought, instead of emailing just a few people for an invitation to get together, why not have an open invitation for all posters? Based upon my past experience with "get togethers" of AC posters I can assure you we will not need to rent out Bell Auditorium as only a few will respond. It is always a joy to meet people that you have chatted with online and those who's comments that you have read even if you don't agree with them. I would fly-in from California for something like this.
Also, cudo's to the Augusta Chronicle for cleaning up the slander and insults that were common on the online edition 1 1/2 years ago and earlier.

Austin Rhodes
3218
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Austin Rhodes 02/29/12 - 12:09 pm
0
4
My comment last night was a

My comment last night was a good natured poke at the fact that for all we know, all the anonymous posters we see here COULD be two pygmies posting from a middle school library in Botswanna.

Having said that...my main objection to anonymous posting does NOT come from anonymous opinion, such as:
"John Jonz, I think you are mean"
...but more serious accusations where some type of real life "authority" is claimed, such as:
"John Jonz, I know you are a thief because I am a cop and I arrested you..."

That kind of thing happens every now and then here, but it used to happen a lot more.

Willow...I am sorry that (likely) a commercial or news break cut you off...feel free to let me know when you are going call, and I will make sure you have all the time you need.

Scoop...there have been more than a few occasions when you have taken shots at me that were less than germane to the conversation at hand...no huge deal...but it did make me chuckle when I saw your stated devotion to manners and civility.

I am on these pages far less than I used to be, because I grew tired of the AC's restrictive policies where the mention of me, and specifically what I do, were banned. They say it is a competition thing...and while I don't agree with their conclusions, I respect their right to run their website as they see fit. I have taken my breaking news and information to sites I control, and get back here when I am asked, or if I see something that specifically moves me to comment.

I have said on many occasions that the decision to bring Alan English in has changed the mindset and institutional attitude of the AC when it comes to their internet presence, and those who opposed his ideas have, for the most part, either relented or have been escorted from building.

I maintain a great working relationship with many under the AC banner, and continue to respect the work they do to bring you (most) of the news of the day.

Nobody's perfect of course, but they get it right way more than they get it wrong.

Sean Moores
341
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Sean Moores 02/29/12 - 12:12 pm
2
0
Jake, This wasn't exactly a

Jake, This wasn't exactly a get together; we could only use a few commenters for this which is the reason for the limited invitations.

And thanks for recognizing the change in the comments. It hasn't been easy.

Sean Moores
341
Points
Sean Moores 02/29/12 - 12:20 pm
2
0
Austin, we do our best to

Austin, we do our best to remove unsubstantiated accusations. Sometimes it can be tricky though. As a general rule of thumb, if the police haven't charged them or implicated them, they can't be accused of committing a crime or attacked on our site. Everyone can use the Report button if they see a comment they think violates our Terms of Service.

Little Lamb
56859
Points
Little Lamb 02/29/12 - 12:27 pm
2
1
Let's say you are served with

Let's say you are served with lawsuit papers. You go interviewing attorneys to fight it. The first thing the prospective attorney wants to know is who the opposing counsel is, not anything about the merits of your case.

One of the great things about anonymous posters is that readers can concentrate on the ideas being presented and not on personalities or backgrounds.

Austin Rhodes
3218
Points
Austin Rhodes 02/29/12 - 12:29 pm
0
1
Sean...that comment was not

Sean...that comment was not directed at anything going on currently, but mainly stuff that is RAMPANT on the internet in general. But you have to admit, the yacking that went on over on the old AC Forums was very often pure garbage.

The very concept of anonymous posting on anything serious, but nothing that REQUIRES anonymity (such as reporting gang activity or dirty cops, etc) is in my opinion unAmerican. Being able to face your accusers is a right in any trial, but in the court of public opinion the internet is pure wild west, with guns-a blazin' and a "what are you gunna do about it" attitude.

But like I said...the new attitude/approach here has resulted in a better environment for all...and that is never a bad thing.

Austin Rhodes
3218
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Austin Rhodes 02/29/12 - 12:34 pm
1
6
LL...I completely support the

LL...I completely support the concept you describe, but I cannot think of a SINGLE hot topic that gets debated on these pages that does not end up having some personality issue or background issue brought up.

Riverman has made a cottage industry out of that kind of thing. I have to laugh about it...I guess everyone needs a hobby...

seenitB4
128856
Points
seenitB4 02/29/12 - 12:45 pm
4
0
OOH PLeeeze austin.....I had

OOH PLeeeze austin.....I had to log back on for that comment..

I really think fishing is RM's hobby NOT YOU!

Riverman1
120936
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Riverman1 02/29/12 - 01:01 pm
2
0
My favorite example was,

My favorite example was, bless her heart, Regina Buccafusco who slammed internet posters something terrible. She said they all gave her a bad taste and so on. She did this in a lengthy comment in the old AC forum....online, that is. Irony at its best. Deke has made similar comments about us.

Willow Bailey
20619
Points
Willow Bailey 02/29/12 - 01:02 pm
2
0
Austin, I do get your point

Austin, I do get your point about defamatory remarks from faceless and nameless people, but for the most part, that is well monitored. Here is the opposite side of the same coin. Where most of us differ from you and the freedom that you are able to enjoy commenting is that your boss pays you to be strongly opinionated and controversial. That's just not so for the majority of folks. Without cover, many would have to play with a different set of social and political rules regarding employment which would result in a loss of their ability to voice their real beliefs and feelings on critical matters…much like the premise behind our rights to secret ballot voting.

Riverman1
120936
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Riverman1 02/29/12 - 01:04 pm
3
0
I am not going to say

I am not going to say anything more. I'm trying to be gentler and kinder. Of noble mind, serene and kind. That's what my highschool yearbook said about me.

Sean Moores
341
Points
Sean Moores 02/29/12 - 01:05 pm
3
0
Austin, I wasn't responsible

Austin, I wasn't responsible for moderating comments on the forums. I also didn't spend much time there, but I know the insults and accusations we don't allow here were given more free rein there.

As for anonymous commenting, the debate is still going on in the news industry. I think that eventually technology will help us to solve some of the issues with problem users. The only real answer at this point is careful comment moderation and that takes up a lot of time.

seenitB4
128856
Points
seenitB4 02/29/12 - 01:06 pm
2
1
Well I give austin credit for

Well I give austin credit for posting on the right thread....some really are LOST ......in some kind of space...:)

Riverman1
120936
Points
Riverman1 02/29/12 - 01:07 pm
1
0
Sean, I'll help you. Heh,

Sean, I'll help you. Heh, heh, heh. Just give me the keys.

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