Generally, those responding to the Scholarly Kitchen have been cordial, insightful, and constructive. It was a bit of a shock to get my first mean-spirited response to a post I made on the Eigenfactor. What differentiated this post from the rest was that the author refused to identify himself. The security of anonymity allowed this individual to vent his frustrations and launch an attack. Granted, this comment was lame compared to the comments online news sites often receive, and anyone willing to make one’s work public should be ready to receive some of the slings and arrows that go along with it.

The July 25th edition of On the Media contains several stories about reader’s comments, including an interview of This American Life’s Ira Glass. The discussion emphasizes the ability of Web 2.0 to empower readers, leading to a new renaissance in participatory democracy. On the other hand, it also allows individuals to engage in libelous acts that go hand-in-hand with free speech. Many online news sites that initially were excited about reader comments have reconsidered this functionality, creating a dilemma for news organizations. As Bob Garfield comments:

. . . if you believe in digital democracy and in the transfer of power from the few to the many, [disallowing reader comments] is absolute heresy.

The show also includes an interview of Lee Siegel, author of the book “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.” Siegel argues that the Internet is not breaking down the hegemony of the media elite, creating a more democratic landscape, but simply replacing one system of control with another. Siegel comments:

Internet boosters are always talking about how the Internet shatters old hierarchies. But that’s nonsense. What the Internet’s creating is a new kind of hierarchy where the loudest and most aggressive voices drown out or bully into silence, the most patient and reflective voices.

While it is easy to turn one’s back to a loud-mouth at a party and go find a more egalitarian conversation, the Internet makes it very easy for individuals to simultaneously dominate many online discussions (a common tactic used by a certain professor of Southamptic domain). Those who are not sensitive to, or care about, community norms are given unlimited opportunity to engage in shameless self-promotion.

In one final piece that needs to be mentioned is an interview of Carole Tarrant, the editor a small Virginia newspaper. She describes that anonymity can be a constructive tool to encourage individuals to voice their opinion on topics where there might be conflicts of interest or power imbalances (such as teacher vs. superintendent). Tarrant ends the interview with a comment on how Web 2.0 has changed the expectations of a generation of new readers:

We have a whole generation that’s trained to expect to be able to voice their opinion, not just to read the news but to talk about it or share it, and that may be ugly or it may be really provocative, but I want to hear it.

I invited the Eigenfactor anonymous commenter to explain his frustrations in more detail (and to sign his comment). As expected . . . no response.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


4 Thoughts on "Anonymity Meets Aggression on Web 2.0"

I am quite surprised to see a blog in which Lee Siegel is quoted in anything by extremely derogatory terms, which he richly deserves. He is persona non grata on the internets, and for good reasons.

While “[disallowing reader comments] is absolute heresy”, disallowing anonymous comments is certainly not. It all depends upon what you want to get out of the conversation/discussion.

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