From the start, Internet users have taken for granted that the territory was both a free-for-all and a digital disguise, allowing them to revel in their power to address the world while keeping their identities concealed.
A New Yorker cartoon from 1993, during the Web’s infancy, with one mutt saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” became an emblem of that freedom. For years, it was the magazine’s most reproduced cartoon.
When news sites, after years of hanging back, embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments, the near-universal assumption was that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. But now, that idea is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites.
The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months, and one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names.
The New York Times, The Post and many other papers have moved in stages toward requiring that people register before posting comments, providing some information about themselves that is not shown onscreen.
The Huffington Post soon will announce changes, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing.
“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”
The Plain Dealer of Cleveland recently discovered that anonymous comments on its site, disparaging a local lawyer, were made using the e-mail address of a judge who was presiding over some of that lawyer’s cases.
Tasmanian Times welcomes its readers’ comments and reactions. From its first issue in October 2002, Tasmanian Times has allowed anonymity, in the belief that the sometimes oppressive nature of the Public Sphere in Tasmania meant that deeply-felt perspectives could not be freely expressed under real names, because of fear of retribution.
Apart from some exceptions, readers have accepted this policy as necessary and defended its need. It has been abused however, with some sniping from behind the shield of anonymity. TT’s evolving Code of Conduct has in recent times limited this.
Tasmanian Times has also removed the link to email addresses in the interests of privacy; believing that in the absence of informed consent, people’s personal email addresses should not be disclosed on the website.
Readers should be aware that all comments are tracked by site administrators and details would be provided to the appropriate authority in the unlikely event of a properly authorised request.
Also by Richard Perez-Pena, New York Times, Poll Finds Pessimism Among Print and Broadcast Journalists:
Most newspaper and broadcast news editors think American journalism is in decline, and about half believe that their employers will go out of business if they do not find new sources of revenue, according to a survey to be released on Monday.
Among print editors, 18 percent said their papers were actively pursuing the idea of charging readers for access to their Web sites, while 58 percent said it was under consideration. Twenty-three percent said they believed that in three years, such subscription fees would be their primary source of online revenue, having overtaken advertising.
Earlier on Tasmanian Times: Publish and be damned