The listserv of the Online News Association, an association of professionals who run news media sites, has been discussing the viability of unmoderated, anonymous discussion forums. The discussion arose after The Washington Post temporarily turned off the comments facility on its Post.Blog due to “hundreds” of comments “including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech.”
An ONA member on Friday cited what I’d written here months ago against unmoderated, anonymous discussion forums. A bit later, another ONA member posted something else that made me realize many news professionals mistake pseudonymity for anonymity.
So, I today entered the discussion, to clarify the difference between those terms and also write about a widespread fallacy that’s impeding progress towards building a better future for media, things I generally discuss only with my clients.
I reproduce my posting below because I want it to be accessible outside that listserve. Because the ONA might prefer to keep its discussions (including any about transparency?) private, I’ve disguised the names of ONA members who I quote. (An additional irony here is that the comments function on this blog still isn’t working. So, e-mail me your comments and I’ll include any I see fit.):
[UPDATE: I erred. A friend at Online Journalism Review has informed me that New England Courant Publisher James Franklin DID NOT know that his sixteen year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin was the pseudonymous ‘Silence Dogood’ until AFTER publishing 14 anonymous articles slipped under his newspaper’s door at nights between April and October of 1722. The elder Franklin was upset when he discovered the author’s true identity and it contributed to a lifelong schism between the brothers.
Walter Isaacson‘s recent biography of Ben Franklin (which cites http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/courant/story.htm as its source about ‘Silence Dogood’) however mentions this as the only time when Benjamin Franklin used a pseudonym without the prior knowledge and approval of a publisher.
I erred, but think the correct facts still point to recklessness by that publisher, who soon served jail time for his own writings in the Courant and the Boston authorities later banned from publishing newspapers. I’ve corrected what I wrote below, striking out the earlier paragraphs.
SECOND UPDATE: Online Journalism Review has published as an article a version of this posting.
> While I understand how tying comments to names
> may have help people recognize their personal
> responsibilities, I also know there is a rich
> history of anonymity in American journalism,
> going back to the early blogger Silence Dogood.
Anonymous to the readers or to the publisher?
‘Silence Dogood’ has been pointed to as the mother of a rich history of anonymity in American journalism. What is true is that between April and October of 1722 New England Courant Publisher James Franklin printed 14 anonymous articles that had been slipped under his door.
The author ‘Silence Dogood’ claimed to be the widow of a country minister, but Franklin suspected the name was a pseudonym for someone else. It was common for eighteenth century journalists, including Franklin’s, to use pseudonyms when writing articles that the authorities might have been considered to be libelous or illegal.
Historical records infer that James Franklin knew the identities of his other pseudonymous contributors, but not that of ‘Silence Dogood’. That failing was perhaps one of many reckless publishing decisions by Franklin, who soon served jail time for his own writings in the Courant and who the Boston authorities later banned from publishing newspapers. He was meanwhile not amused to learn that ‘Silence Dogood’ was actually his 16 year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin Franklin.
The publisher of ‘Silence Dogood’ knew exactly who ‘she’ really was before ‘her’ writings were published in the newspaper. In fact, New England Courant Publisher James Franklin knew his sixteen year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin very well in 1722 before letting Ben use that pseudonym.
Unlike James Franklin, American Weekly Mercury Publisher Andrew Bradford of Philadelphia a few years later knew before publication that “Caelia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” were pseudonyms for journeyman printer Ben Franklin, who’d fled Boston and joined his employ and started writing articles under the pseudonyms “Caelia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” in that Philadelphia newspaper.
As did American Weekly Mercury Publisher Andrew Bradford a few years later when journeyman printer Ben Franklin joined his employ and started writing articles under the pseudonyms ‘Caelia Shortface’ and ‘Martha Careful’ in that Boston newspaper.
When later Ben Franklin himself became a newspaper publisher in Philadelphia, he occasionally published his own articles under the pseudonyms ‘Anthony Afterwit’ and ‘Alice Addertongue.’ Yet the ‘Richard Saunders’ of the eponymous book Poor Richard’s Almanac was probably Publisher Ben Franklin’s best-known, self-permitted pseudonym.
There is a rich history of pseudonymity in American opinion journalism. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers using the pseudonym ‘Publius,’ but not without their publisher’s prior permission and knowledge of their true identities. A more recent example occurred in 1947 when the publisher of Foreign Affairs granted the Moscow-based American diplomat George Kennan the pseudonym ‘X’ to write the renowned political essay proposing the geographic containment of Communism.
Though I can’t think of a current American periodical that regularly grants pseudonyms to its writers, the British publishers of the Financial Times and The Economist regularly grant them for some of their columnists. However, those publishers know their columnists’ true identities and vet the columns beforehand.
In all the examples I’ve mentioned, the publishers not only knew the pseudonymous writers’ true identities beforehand but also vetted the writers’ submissions before publication. That’s a far cry from publishing anonymous blog postings.
Though there is a rich history of pseudonymity in American journalism, there is none of anonymity. It has long been understood that if the publisher of a reputable periodical grants a writer use of a pseudonym, then that publisher knows the writer’s true identity and takes responsibility — legal and otherwise — for that writer’s words.
Printed periodicals grant pseudonymity but never anonymity. Imagine the cacophony that would result if printed periodicals published unvetted, unreviewed, and anonymous Letters-to-the-Editor or Op-Ed essays.
Yet we’re now discussing how some of those periodicals’ are doing the equivalent of that online. Should there really be any surprise that many of those comments are scatological, obscene, or libelous?
Publishing anonymous, unvetted, and unreviewed commentary is a huge difference from those publications’ print editions’ policies. It’s a different kettle of fish, one that can stink for the publishers. Indeed, those publishers and their new-media managers are being reckless. And if you think I’ve used too strong a word, poll newspaper libel lawyers and libel insurers.
Xxxx Xxxxxxxxx at 11:39 hrs UMT on 20 February 2006 noted:
> Forgive me, but I would respectfully suggest
> that the topic IS worth discussing more than
> once, particularly in a medium evolves as fast
> as ours.
Yes, it’s certainly worth discussing again and again. But we do realize that, for human reasons, the topic has not evolved during the past 10 years despite the evolution of technology. This topic is substantially the same as it was when the first open bulletin boards were posted on the Web in 1996 or when the first proprietary online service user forums went online years earlier. Online news managers who don’t know its history are doomed to relive it.
Although the technologies of this medium evolve with the speed of ‘Moore’s Law,’ the actual laws and liabilities governing the technologies evolve about as fast as the eponymous Gordon Moore can walk (he celebrated his 77th birthday this month). That is because the mechanical topic of technology and the human topic of ethics aren’t related to each other. Although we may strive to offer bulletin boards and commentary fields where people might provide thoughtful and ethical comments without scatology, obscenity, or libel, we cannot and will not achieve that through technology alone.
What I’m about to state might seem farfetched, but a decade of studying online news media leads me to fear that it is true: