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Anonymous Postings Meet the Face-to-Face World (from Topix to DC Urban Moms)

I read the recent article in the New York Times about how small towns are being torn apart by anonymous bulletin board websites that allow people to essentially post the town gossip (the more inflammatory the better!).  Think so-and-so is having an affair on his wife?  Post it online — without your name attached, of course — and see if anyone can corroborate your thoughts.  Think so-and-so is a dick?  Post it online — anonymously please! — and see if anyone else agrees.  And beyond that, make sure that you answer a person’s earnest question as nastily as possible so she is left wondering who the hell her neighbours are.

I feel for these small towns, especially ones where the population is settled rather than fluid, and people are so distrustful and hurt by their neighbours — not even certain which ones to be upset with since the board is anonymous — that their impulse is to move.  To uproot their life and take it elsewhere.

But I have to disagree somewhat with the author: this phenomenon isn’t unique to small towns.  While people may believe that just because you live in a large city that you can absorb slams to your reputation better, the reality is that most people take large entities and make them smaller, creating tiny niches.  In the city, we exist in a tiny bubble within a larger circle.  I don’t interact with many people outside my tiny bubble, and everyone new that I meet turns out to be strangely interconnected.

Therefore, when people anonymously post horrific things about people I know on our local anonymous posting bulletin board, the infamous DC Urban Moms, it affects them.  When people allow discussions to dissolve into a flame war, it affects people in their face-to-face world, especially if they suspect the author of the anonymous comment.  City people may be able to find a different bubble in the larger circle, but it means sometimes switching jobs, apartments, churches, and where they go grocery shopping in order to do so.

I started out thinking DC Urban Moms was a lifesaver.  I posted about being unable to breastfeed and WhyMommy along with others stepped forward with formula coupons.  People weighed in with their thoughts about local pediatricians.  I found answers to a lot of “where can you find…” type questions.  Drama happened, but I could tune out the flame wars by skipping over postings by certain people, knowing that they were the ones who tried to foment others on the list.

And then DC Urban Moms started their anonymous forums and I had to stop reading.  There were passionate fights on the listserv, but people had to stand behind their words which reined them in.  Amongst the real advice you can still find on DC Urban Moms, you now need to wade through discussions such as “wake up fat people” and “obnoxious things being said in DC schools.”  I have only been back on when a friend writes me and says, “holy shit, look at what someone wrote about me online!”

The Topix site mentioned in the New York Times and DC Urban Moms step over the line from a “fight site” to a cruelty zone, where people attempt to destroy each other’s reputations and livelihoods.  School teachers are bashed, neighbours are torn new assholes, and even children aren’t safe from people’s acid treatment.  People are told from complete strangers that they’re horrific parents, skanks, and selfish.  You really don’t want to go on there and see what is being written about infertile men and women. (To be fair, the horrible comments are scattered amongst some wonderful support as well.  But frankly, I can’t stay for the support when it comes with a big helping of “you obvious don’t deserve to be a parent and that’s why you can’t get pregnant” type commentary.)  And all of it is done anonymously.

It makes you wonder who these anonymous posters are.  Are they shopping at the very same P Street Whole Foods?  Are they at the next table at ACKC?  They could be a fellow shul-goer, they could be my gynecologist, they could be a friend of a friend, floating around the same little city bubble.

I left the newsletter and site — and I’d encourage all the townspeople of Mountain Grove to do the same — because I didn’t want to take part, even as just a reader.  I don’t think enough good can come from anonymous sites nor do I think that questions that need an anonymous presentation are always best suited for an online site.  I understand why people legitimately want to be anonymous to ask their question.  I understand that some questions are embarrassing in nature or people worry about information getting back to the wrong person.  But the reality is that the anonymous function is rarely used to protect the question asker from damage in their work or social world that could come from their question.  It is more often used to hurl insults.

As that article admits:

Jeff Steele, the founder of DCUM, says there aren’t many topics on the site that can’t turn into an argument. Compared to the kinder, more utilitarian parenting newsletter he and his wife also run, he says, the message board is like the Wild West.

If he knows that’s the case, I have to ask why allow anonymous posting?  Why not make people stand behind the statements they make and tame the Wild West?  Force people to rethink whether or not a discussion needs to begin online.

In fact, Steele admits in a blog post that users themselves have requested that people stand by their words by logging in:

So, to those of you who wonder whether DCUM is likely to change with Maria’s new role, here is your answer. Especially, to those who suggest — over and over again — that we require users to login, the chance of that is close to nil.

If people are asking “over and over again,” why not give it to them?  The answer — I would guess — is that DC Urban Moms would get many fewer page views if people played nicely.  Though I assume that if asked, Steele would trot out a socially-respectable answer such as the commonly used cry of free speech.

Claiming free speech in and of itself makes for a weak argument.  Free speech is a constitutional right, but it is always tempered with limitations, stating that people cannot commit libel or slander, incite violence, scream out obscenities.  Free speech is a responsibility — not something to be abused for amusement or to attract page views.  As human beings who require a certain level of decency in order to function as a society, we need some limits or guidelines on that free speech.

Limits which are sorely lacking on online anonymous posting forums.

I think there are plenty of good reasons for anonymous posting, and for me, it’s the reason behind why you are not attaching your name that makes it permissible or not.  I’m not sure how we argue the good of anonymous posting when it’s used solely to call someone else a bitch.

I feel for the small towns mentioned in the New York Times article, but I also feel for those of us in larger cities who also have to contend with vitriol on the Web.  It’s a short life.  I’m never sure why some people feel the need to make things uglier than they need to be.


1 Lynn { 09.21.11 at 10:06 pm }

I hadn’t heard about this article, but am really going to enjoy reading it!

In response to your post though, Mel, I’m actually in one of those small towns that loves Topix. Recently (within the last year), I was actually inadvertently personally affected by one of those nasty, gossipy posts when some individuals who work with me decided to anonymously post comments (both true and untrue) regarding other members of staff. It got so bad that our CEO became involved and we were actually issued with a warning that if we were caught on one of these sites, it would result in termination from our job. It really is crazy!

In addition, while not local sites, The Hubs is a frequenter of online forums where anonymous postings run rampant. Even though these people only know one another due to having been members of the same online communities for years (in some cases as long as a decade), there also seem to be several of them who revel in tearing others down. In one instance I can remember, someone’s personal information (real name, phone number, home address) was posted for all to see.

It all seems ridiculous and pointless. Frankly, I have more important things to do with my time than tear others down. It appears to me that life does that enough without us having to add being cruel to one another into the mix.

2 Kimberly { 09.21.11 at 10:45 pm }

I agree completely with what you have said. I have never seen a point to anonymous posting. Growing up, I was taught to stand behind what I say and mean what I say. My dad taught me that if you want your words to have power, put a name and face to what you have to say it will leave a lasting impression. I was also taught that it was wrong to say hurtful things to people and to not bully others. I guess not everyone was taught these things. And you know what? That makes me the lucky one.

3 mash { 09.22.11 at 5:49 am }

Slightly off topic, but a man in the UK just got a prison sentence for cyber bullying: http://news.sky.com/home/uk-news/article/16068619. I think there is a bit of a sub culture, people who feel powerless in their own lives, are doing unthinkably cruel things behind the “anonymous” mask online. Maybe the best thing to do is to completely ignore them, it’s our anger that feeds their need for a response!

4 Cattiz J { 09.22.11 at 7:59 am }

Wow, I think it’s just horrible. Wonder what people get out of putting others down again and again. Can’t be very happy themselves is my guess.

5 Sarah { 09.22.11 at 8:26 am }

I am apart of two online forums. One, which was for a small organization I belong to, use to allow anonymous posting. People could openly flame others hiding behind a user name or an anonymous post. It got so bad that they took away the the anonymous posting and made people register with their real names either in their user name or in their profiles. This cut down on a lot of the flaming posts. Most of the people who were making the posts were revealed and many of them were ousted from the club.

6 Esperanza { 09.22.11 at 9:27 am }

This is interesting. I am part of a huge listserve site like the one you are talking about (Golden Gate Mothers Group – ggmg) and while people can post anonymously, those post are monitored before they go up and you can’t respond anonymously. I guess that keeps people from posting slanderous stuff. Some posts do become flame wars but it’s always over a parenting ideology and not a person. I will be interested to read that article and I’m now more impressed with the way ggmg is run. Maybe the $75 I have to pay a year isn’t just for the meager monthly publication…

7 {sue} { 09.22.11 at 9:42 am }

DCUMs makes me sick. There is one forum for parenting special needs kids that actually has useful information. Although the flame throwers are slowly making their way in there too.

My area currently has a big development brouhaha going down. There have been a few articles in the Washington Post and the Patch and I refuse to debate the issue in the comments there, as many people do. I’m happy to post my opinions on a listserve or at a public meeting, but I’m not going to go up against anyone who can hide behind Anonymous. It’s ridiculous.

8 a { 09.22.11 at 10:55 am }

You mean I’m NOT supposed to scream out obscenities? You’d have thought someone would have told me that by now.

I’m fairly certain that freedom of speech is entirely based on the idea that it was likely that someone could track you down and punish your for what you said. It’s not a valid argument for anonymous internet postings.

I’ve never belonged to any forums like these, and I’m glad I haven’t.

9 HereWeGoAJen { 09.22.11 at 11:00 am }

I’m so used to our nice little community that I am always shocked when I read comments on a “regular” article somewhere. People seem to forget that there are real people behind the computers online.

10 magpie { 09.22.11 at 12:32 pm }

My small town has a homegrown on-line newspaper. They don’t require a sign-in, or even a regular user name, and the vitriol in the comments can be astonishing. People totally hide behind the anonymity. People – me included – have suggested that they change the policy, but then others climb up and claim that they can speak more freely without revealing who they are – they seem to think that they can’t out themselves for one reason or another. I’d estimate that maybe 10% of the comments have real names attached.

I confess that there was a time when I was ADDICTED to UrbanBaby – just for the snark. It was my little lunch hour vice. I never jumped in, I just watched with jaw agape. But it was totally anonymous, unlike that Topix thing which sounds horrific…

11 slowmamma { 09.22.11 at 3:08 pm }

Wow. Now I feel fortunate that the forums that I frequent don’t contain any of that crap. None. I suspect that, as Esperanza points out, I can thank responsible moderators for this. Perhaps that is the answer: give people the benefit of the doubt by allowing them to post anonymously but simply refuse to post disrespectful comments. Sort of a small-scale example of why communities require government just as much as they require freedoms.

12 Michele Scott { 09.22.11 at 7:04 pm }

I’ve only participated in non-anonymous forums, but it makes me sad to think that any community would tear its members apart – especially when we’re teaching our children about anti-bullying. What ever happened to “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” and “do unto others….”? We are the example. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

13 Elizabeth { 09.23.11 at 11:10 am }

One reason I really like Tom and Lorenzo’s fashion blog is they moderate comments, and have a clearly stated policy that while botching about people’s fashion choices is totally legit, saying mean things about their bodies or facial features is not. They delete hateful comments and have even closes commenting altogether when things got out of hand. And it’s usually celebrities who are the targets; people who we sometimes forget are real people too. I just think their commitment to comment moderation demonstrates a humanist commitment to civil society (in more than one sense).

14 Tara { 09.24.11 at 8:59 am }

I’m at the table next to you in ACKC, but if you try to swipe my delicious fleur de sel caramels, I will write something nasty about you in DC Urban Moms.
But, seriously, this is the reason why I think people who comment on newspaper web articles should be required to leave their full, real name. If you send a letter to the editor to the paper, you’ve got to give your name, your phone and address, and they call to verify who you are and what your potential interests may be (i.e., you’re employed by the company lobbying for the slots machines that you’ve written the article about). Having to attach your real name to your comment keeps us in that social contract of (relative) civility.

15 Bea { 09.26.11 at 9:13 am }

I made a decision a while back that I basically wouldn’t bother with message boards that didn’t require a login. Even a pseudonym is still a “nym” with a reputation to protect (although it’s too easy to acquire a new pseudonym for this to be anywhere near 100% effective, it does tend to increase the overall civility by increasing the cost of being a fuckwit). What gets me is the bit you mention about perfectly decent questions getting all this sneering bullshit instead of just, you know, decent answers. Totally unnecessary and absolutely disgraceful.


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