Anonymous Animosity

As the famous New Yorker cartoon stated, no one knows you’re a dog on the Internet. True enough. The lack of identification and accountability on the Internet is, for many, what makes it so attractive. But there’s a flip side to this anonymity — a public figure or even a not-so public figure can be dragged into a discussion and held up for ridicule or worse from a pack of faceless critics. This is the situation AdweekMedia found itself in last week as an online news item on DDB’s soon-to-be-departing chief creative officer Lee Garfinkel drew a flurry of ugly comments. Garfinkel has been a fixture in the industry for years and, in that time, has apparently rubbed a few former and perhaps current co-workers the wrong way. (Garfinkel stepped in to the fracas with an essay aimed at his critics that was, quirkily enough, mostly in defense of his mustache and facial hair, subjects singled out by a few commentators — after that, the comments got more positive.)

While we were happy to see a strong response to one of our stories, all of this led to some hand-wringing at the home office. Should we let people post such vitriol? If so, are we implicitly sanctioning such trash? Following the policies of other news sites should we require them to sign in and thus eliminate that fig leaf of anonymity? Or is the best course of action to keep our commentators’ identities obscure but monitor their postings to the best of our abilities? After much discussion (and confirmation from an online Adweek poll we ran last week), it was determined that the latter is the best choice. Our reasoning: Much as we might wish for the good old days of print accountability, electronic media has imposed its own norms. There is nothing inherently evil about letting readers add their two cents to a story in an anonymous fashion, so barring the practice makes no sense on those terms. But there is something monstrously unfair and vile about subjecting anyone to the Gulliver-like experience of being nibbled at by cowards who use the veil of Internet privacy to destroy a reputation. So, in the future, we will continue to allow anonymous comments on our stories, but we will be diligent in weeding out the obscene ones. In the end, in other words, our readers will have the final say. Mostly, we hope that our readers will respect the line between comments that are illustrative and those that are merely gratuitous. After all, dogs may be able to pass as humans on the Internet, but we expect the humans to behave humanely.