View Full Version : Combatting web forum "shouters"

05-14-2007, 10:40 AM
from today's WaPo
Sunshine for the Virtual Town Hall (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/13/AR2007051301121.html?hpid=opinionsbox1)

By Tom Grubisich - Monday, May 14, 2007; Page A15

These days we want "transparency" in all institutions, even private ones. There's one massive exception -- the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet "handles" -- gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.
Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. "Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you'll have money to expand the school," he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.

You notice his nametag -- "anticrat424." Between his sentences, you interject, "Excuse me, who are you?"

He gives you a narrowing look. "Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent's police on me? Hah!"

In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.

You would think Web sites would want to keep the hate-mongers from taking over, but many sites are unwitting enablers. At washingtonpost.com, editors and producers say they struggle to balance transparency against privacy. Until recently, many of the site's posters identified themselves with anonymous Internet handles -- which were the site's default ID. Now (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/washpostblog/2007/05/mypost_launches.html), people must enter a "user ID" that appears with their comments.

Hal Straus, washingtonpost.com's interactivity and communities editor, says the changes "move us in the direction of transparency." But the distinction is not quite a difference, because washingtonpost.com user IDs can be real names or fictional Internet handles. While the site prohibits comments that are libelous, abusive, obscene or otherwise inappropriate, Mr. anticrat424 could still find a well-amplified podium at washingtonpost.com.

The news and opinion site Huffingtonpost.com requires posters to register with their real names but maddeningly assures them that it will "never" use those names.

Though not foolproof, there are ways to at least raise the bar. Gordon Joseloff, a former CBS News correspondent who owns WestportNow.com, a popular grass-roots site in Westport, Conn., used to employ the standard permissive registration process. But in late 2005, turned off by the venom of anonymous posters, Joseloff instituted a policy requiring anyone who wanted to comment to use his or her real name. Joseloff also requires registrants to give their phone numbers. Numbers aren't posted on the site, but they give him and his team an additional check against false registration.

Policies and constraints understandably vary between large and small sites, but one concern common to all sites is whistle-blowers: What about someone who wants to expose an injustice or unfairness, whether it's a civil servant pinpointing malfeasance in government or, perhaps, a waiter complaining about lousy tipping at a local restaurant? How can they be protected from retaliation?

Online pioneer Vin Crosbie suggests that sites -- whether personal blogs, community sites or major news providers -- should be flexible enough to grant pseudonyms to users who want to blow a whistle. This would require sites to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. How often would such intervention be required? Not enough to require most sites to hire extra staff.

A site that grants a pseudonym would have to know the poster's real name as well as some facts that back up any accusations. The site wouldn't have to cave in whenever it was slapped with a subpoena. Courts have ruled that both anonymous and pseudonymous posters have "qualified privilege" under the First Amendment that protects their identities and puts a high legal bar in front of subpoena seekers.

If Web sites required posters to use their real names, while giving the shield of pseudonymity when it's merited, spirited online debate would continue unimpeded. It might even be enhanced by attracting contributors who are turned off today by name calling and worse. Except for the hate-mongers, who wouldn't want that?

The author, a former Post reporter and editor, writes about grass-roots journalism for Online Journalism Review. His e-mail address is TomEditor@msn.com.

Titanium Dome
05-14-2007, 01:11 PM
I like it. It's a two-way street.

Another way to grow a community is through broader representation in the decision-making or in the advisory process. Another is greater transparency in that process.


Maron Horonzakz
05-15-2007, 06:53 AM
So who are these Titanium Widgets?

Titanium Dome
05-15-2007, 08:21 AM
So who are these Titanium Widgets?

A fair question. Some published answers:




I've also posted a couple of times where you can see the real me if you want. WARNING: Do this between meals.


05-15-2007, 08:48 AM
quote=Titanium Dome;169024]It's a two-way street.[/quote]

Yes, very much so.

A few years ago, I watched a friend of mine get a tattoo. He sits in the chair and the artist goes to work. Nearly an hour later, he is calmly flipping through the pages of a magazine- showing no signs of discomfort at all. His skin was glowing red and the artists' needle was steadily pounding away at his (apparently) tender flesh. Finally, I asked him if it hurt. He looks to me with a Zen like expression on his face and softly says: "It hurts like hell".

These 'forum shouters' may be irritating, but there is no need to show signs of being irritated. A concern that they have been elevated in the status platform is only a sign that you have a personal, high regard for such status. By acknowledging a flame, or worse- responding to it with a counter-flame, a person has given power to the original author. The best way to deal with these people is to ignore them- hard as it may be.

Another important thing I consider is that these internet forums are a perfect model for free speech. In that- you take the good with the bad. If a person needs to identify himself at a convention in order for his or her "speech" to be taken seriously- that's associated prejudice; thus, the speech would be at a social "cost". I am black, so do I need to identify myself as a black man before someone will listen to me? Anonymity is a wonderful way to get ideas and opinions flowing without prejudice.

Unfortunately, attacks are without consequences, too. Some of the forum behavior on exhibit would result in a serious thrashing in face to face situations. On the positive side of it, typed words are MUCH easier to ignore and put into proper perspective. I accept these cons because the pros far outweigh them. It is nice to hear a great opinion or idea from anonymous people that I might not otherwise have had a chance to listen too. If an idea or opinion is a good one- the open forum of the internet will shine the appropriate spotlight on it. This is despite what cultural, racial, or socio-economic background the author hails from. I think that’s great!

Regarding the recent "off-topic" subject:

I am a bit surprised by the removal of off-topic. I understand that the moderators were growing tired of the moderating strain it required, but off-topic was a great boxing ring for those who wished to get out some frustrations. I hope that tension will not erupt in other parts of the forum because that outlet is now closed.

I was taught to be quiet when other people were speaking. I also prefer others to be quiet whilst I am speaking. I was taught to remain mature at all costs, and to treat all others with a certain level of respect- no matter what your personal opinion is of them. This is to say I am (mostly ;-)) a civilized person- and I suspect most all of you are, too. At the same time- I don't expect everyone to conduct themselves in same manner. I don't expect that all people have been taught how to have a civilized conversation. A friendly debate where wildly opposing viewpoints can be discussed at length without immaturity is a rarity- but I love it when it happens. As a moderator or a site admin- I might desire a certain level of maturity to exist in my forum- but I shouldn’t expect it unless I am willing to police it at all costs. With rules comes policing- the two cannot exist singularly.

It is unfortunate that we cannot discuss other things (besides speakers) without acting like 3 year olds- especially when you consider that the majority of LH forumites are well over the age of 30.

05-15-2007, 08:20 PM
from today's WaPo
Sunshine for the Virtual Town Hall (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/13/AR2007051301121.html?hpid=opinionsbox1)

By Tom Grubisich - Monday, May 14, 2007; Page A15

The author, a former Post reporter and editor, writes about grass-roots journalism for Online Journalism Review. His e-mail address is TomEditor@msn.com.

You post it with no comment. Do you have a point of view on it?