Anonymity Is A Coward’s Cloak

Some people choose not to identify themselves when they leave blog comments. I recently had a twitter conversation after finding myself dismayed at some particularly inappropriate statements from people with “cute” screen names discussing a vendor who has recently undergone some business transitions. Assertions about the company and alleged co-workers were made that would be fighting words had they occurred in the open. Chris Bird, enterprise architect and blogger, made the comment: “anonymity is a coward’s cloak.” (Chris’ blog, by the way, is well worth reading if you care about software architectures. Follow the link. ) He’s spot on. And he’s made me think about how I manage comments on my blog.

I leave the description of the comments and the site they appeared on vague because the specifics are not the point. The behavior is, and so is the medium; I’ve seen this many times. Some people who leave comments make assertions, often ugly, about personal and corporate behavior. They may be absolutely correct. They may have an axe to grind. They may never have been within 50 miles of the place they describe. We can’t know the truth, or their motives, because they don’t identify themselves. Anonymity has its uses in investigative journalism and other places, where it permits the truth to come out. But that’s not what anonymous comments on a blog are about. They lack credibility without attribution in a public conversation.

Dialogue is hugely important. One of the great opportunities of internet-based social media is the discourse they foster – wide open, broad-based, easy to participate in. It’s a revolution in human communications whose effects are still in their infancy, but like many such evolutionary steps, it is accompanied by the bad behaviors as well as the good – virulent political slander, attacks on sites by criminal hackers,  video porn on co-workers’ screens, attacks on “different” teenagers on Facebook, and on and on. In that context, anonymous comments may seem a small matter to cavil at. And I suppose they are. But as I said in a post last year on civilized discourse and the blog, those of us who participate have a responsibility to follow certain rules of behavior.

For my part, I hope for wide open discussion on my blog – I take time every day to review comments and respond, because that is what this medium is all about. And we all gain from the dialogue. But I also take seriously my responsibility to maintain my site’s level of discourse, and I won’t leave inappropriate comments up, or approve comments from people I am not able to identify. I’ve had great conversations with colleagues who have well-traveled sites of their own, and heard a lot of positive feedback about this policy idea.

Please – leave comments. I’m eager to have them. On this topic or any others I write about. But identify yourself – this is supposed to be a conversation. We like to know who we’re talking to. Anonymity is a coward’s cloak.

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

4 Responses to Anonymity Is A Coward’s Cloak

  1. Gerry Van Zandt says:

    Merv,

    What about situations where a commenter arranges with you to be anonymous, but you know they are legitimate and a real person with something substantial and beneficial (non-slanderous, etc.) to say?

    Would you accept a comment in such a case?

    Cheers,
    Gerry

  2. Merv Adrian says:

    Terrific question. Yes – I’ll do that, and inform my readers that I know the commenter. At that point, it will be about my credibility – which I value highly. It’s why I now disclose when a vendor I write about is a client, for example.

  3. I agree with you; a large part of the value of the medium comes from the comments, and sometimes this leads to truly beautiful discussion.

    On my blog, I use comment moderation (mostly to fight blogspam), and I have anonymous comments enabled, because I myself am not a big fan of registering all the time at all these sites where I would like to leave a comment myself. I find that this facility is rarely abused – often people sign with what appears to be a real first name, and if they don’t often the content seems genuine enough.

    Occasionally I get an anonymous troll. I don’t remove those comments. I have only once filtered out a libelous comment. I think it’s part of the territory, and although I don’t like those comments, blogspam is what really makes my blood boil.

  4. Merv Adrian says:

    It’s a tough call. Perhaps when I get the volume of traffic someone like, say, Curt Monash does I’ll be less inclined to manage closely. I don’t demand registration; I authorize people when I accept their first comment. After that they don’t see any process other than waiting for me to approve before it goes up.

    To Gerry’s point above, there may be a reason to allow someone to remain anonymous. But they have to trust me before I trust them. I strive to earn that from them.

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