Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Writing, Talking, and Anonymity

The exchange on anonymous posts made me think of another small discussion on this blog about written and spoken messages. (I am not talking about the series on the (not) New York Times rule.) I took the position that a written message – even an argument – is sometimes preferable because it forces the other person to “listen” before responding. When I wrote that I had in mind conversations with colleagues and friends who, before a thought is complete, begin shaking their heads “no” and preparing a response to something they have yet to hear. Writing seems to me to be more like an approach I read about for how couples should argue. The approach required one partner to repeat back to the other person what they had said before responding so at least the response would be on point.

I think in that older discussion Marie made the point that – and she would have said it more gently than this I think but then again maybe not– if someone has got something to say to someone else they should have the guts to say it to his or her face.

That is where the connection is to the issue of anonymous postings. I will have to concede that writing as opposed to face to face, whatever I think its advantages may be, also gives the speaker just a shade of anonymity. The writer does not have to see the reaction of the other party and to some extent can be viewed as not fully accountable for the impact of what he or she says. That makes the writer seem like a coward. On the other hand, what if those visible cues given off by the person who is “listening” to something he or she does not want to hear are actually part of the way he or she argues, even a subtle form of bullying or at least a passive aggressive why of signaling disapproval? Why should the person simply delivering a message or stating a point of view accept subtextual punishment for doing so? If it has the impact of making full discussion less likely is it any different from raising one’s voice or slamming the door?

The brief exchange on writing as opposed to speaking moved me to the "it all depends position." On the other hand, if there ever was a door slammer it is the anonymous commentator. “So there!” he says as the door crashes shut. The problem with this generalization is that I can think of legitimate reasons why a commentator would like to remain unnamed. An untenured person (although I have yet to witness a case in which it would be necessary) may feel this way. Similarly, the member of any law firm or any terminable at will employee may for good reason want to remain anonymous. On the other hand, there are the anonymous commentators who are the blogging version of high school kids writing on the bathroom wall. They do not care to agree or disagree with the substance (disagreement is better from my point of view because it increases the chances of learning something). I've decided to delete those from now on. The psychology of these commentators is lost on me. How can saying something that you fight not to have attributed to you make you feel better? I have some hunches about these grown up bathroom wall markers but they are too cruel to write. I keep trying to remember that even anonymous is someone's son or daughter.


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I admit to not having thought this through very carefully. But a couple of reactions:

1. Some of what you urge for anonymous commentators can be internalized by them. For example, I think they should be encouraged to have a consistent ID, for accountability reasons; they should not slam the door, but should be open to replies; they should be on topic and respectful. These are not very different from the standards that should be applied to people who sign their names.

2. There is, however, a greater aggregate risk that the anonymous will not obey those norms. Perhaps that warrants a ban altogether, for administrative convenience. Why keep them, then? Well, as you and others say, perhaps the anonymous are individuals particularly needing protection. As I've said, I think that only partly grasps the reasons for anonymity. Some may prefer the possibility of testing arguments tentatively, but responsibly; the internet has a memory far exceeding casual conversation or email exchange. Some may want to avoid unfair castigation, given that counter-commenting can almost always be done anonymously, or from a sinecure; take a casual glance at some law school sites for examples of bullying from on high and from down low.

Quite apart from these private benefits, permitting anonymous commentary might, if done responsibly, improve the conversation. With some exceptions, a few being on this site, much signed blogging is anodyne, so hedged and caveated as to be useless. Other signed commentary gets a pass only because of the station of the writer. Still more is designed to flatter, or respond to flattery. One can be respectful, and on point, without putting down a name, and sometimes it might improve the discourse. But it can also be ruinous, I grant you.

3. I think you are onto something when you compare the distinction between writing and face to face communications; this is not just a problem of anonymous commenting. I find writing on the web, whether signed or unsigned, very often breaches in-person or person -to-person etiquette. It also encourages a peculiar kind of discourse -- for example, complaining to an external audience about unnamed individuals with whom one works or has worked.

4. Just say the word if you want anonymous commenting to cease -- or if it's material, whether you want it only from the untenured or at-will employees. Your house, your rules.

5/06/2008 5:23 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Ani: Actually it is your posts that are mainly responsible for my view that anonymous posts are often thoughtful and insightful and that the poster probably has good reasons for remaining unnamed.

On the issue of face to face etiquette, I think we may disagree to a degree. There are face to face strategies that are regularly employed and which advantage one person over another but somehow get the label "civil." They may not be civil at all but are given that label because the the groups better at using those strategies are in the majority and get to make up the rules. Of course, at one time those groups also regarded dueling as civil.

5/07/2008 9:47 AM  

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