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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Anonymity Spreads Rumors... and Solves Problems

Sorry, more blog navel-gazing...

Reader TLJ e-mails me about the Sisseton Communities Meeting Place that I spotlighted yesterday. The reader is less sanguine than I about the merits of the site: characterizing blogs in general as "garbage novels," the reader finds the Sisseton blog "damning, callous, and blatantly cruel." The reader says the anonymity of the blog author and commenters only fosters cowardice and meanness.

The reader's criticism is not without merit. Yet interestingly, in class last night, my professor said that research in decision support systems has found empirical evidence that anonymity actually supports group problem-solving. Anonymity increases participation, decreases groupthink, and elicits more ideas.

We can definitely argue over whether the conversation on a blog constitutes a group problem-solving setting. But if we, dear readers, view ourselves as a community, and if we view the text here not as a personal grudge match but as ideas to share, build, and evaluate, then maybe these Web conversations can be one more venue for the conversation we have to have to recognize and solve problems.

Below is a copy of my full reply to reader TLJ. Keep those cards and letters coming!

Hi, Terry!

Thanks for the comments on the Sisseton blog. I agree with you that anonymity detracts from public discourse. We should all have the conviction to put our names to the things we say.

I've wage my own running battle with Anonymi on my own blog. I've gone back and forth over the value of leaving the door open to anonymous comments. I want to know the source of everything I read... but all of my online experience and other things I read tells me that trying to block anonymity (1) is really hard and (2) does more harm than good.

Practically, there is no easy, fool-proof anti-anonymity technique. I could require every commenter to leave a name and working e-mail address, but folks who want to hide their identity can then simply enter a fake name and a dummy e-mail address. (Consider: even you, leaving your name and e-mail address, still remain essentially unknown to me, as perhaps I remain to you: who are you? where do you live? are you related to anyone here in Madison? How can I know?) Erecting even those minimal barriers will then also deter other folks from leaving comments. I'm surprised how many people remain anonymous even to leave perfectly positive comments. It doesn't make sense to me: if I'm saying something positive, why would I hide? But I've gotten useful comments, good ideas, surprising insights from some Anonymi. Once they get comfortable after a few comments, some Anonymi come out of the shadows and put a name to their comments. I'd hate to lose that input.

Funny: just last night in class (I'm in the doctoral program at DSU), our prof said that decision support systems research has found empirical evidence that anonymity enhances group problem solving by increasing participation, decreasing "groupthink," and eliciting more ideas.

Now granted, a lot of the content on the Sisseton blog looks more like rumor and nastiness than an effort at group problem-solving. But it's a start. That nastiness and rumor-mongering are already at work in every small town. The Internet doesn't create any new bad behavior or attitudes; it just brings those features of a community out into the open, where people will be able to face problems, talk about them, and eventually get around to solving them.

Maybe I'm just too much of an Internet-optimist, but I hear language from the administrator that suggests a desire to solve problems. Both your criticism and my optimism are justifiable; perhaps one will become more justifiable than the other as more people learn about the Sisseton blog.

All that said, thanks for reading! I'll try to rise above "garbage novel" status every now then for you.

Cory Allen Heidelberger
Madville Times


  1. Anonymous comments may be important simply because they express true thought without fear of judgment and ties right back to groupthink. Have you experienced the exciting exchange of ideas of informed people who trust one another and are working toward the best mutual solutions? But will that happen when there is a strong tie to a different agenda and people are more concerned about their individual interests? Look at DSU, a place we look for independent ideas, and consider the huge change in its fund raising requirements. Public schools and their president must spend so much of their time raising money. That may create some healthy ties back to the community, but if that tie is overly financial, will that work to stifle independent voices? A teacher friend told me Bill Janklow used to call state employees if he read a letter to the editor he didn’t like and remind them they were his employee. About three years ago a DSU employee had concerns about the relationship between Madison Discount Liquor and fund raising. Has our university system become too financially dependent on community donors? As I look at the 2006 LAIC directors, they are almost all large businessman, two government representatives, and Dr. Knowlton. At first look that may seem like the university’s chance for progressive and thoughtful input, but again consider the financial ties. Does this place the university president in a situation where he is pressed to accept the agenda of an outside organization? If those pressures exist, does that set the right tone for critical thinking from the rest of the campus?

    Please don’t consider my questions personal, as I am in fact fond of many who are tied to the campus, LAIC and the city commission, but I come from the mind set that asking questions is a good thing. John Hess

  2. Regarding the Sisseton blog....anonymity is what makes it work FOR the people and not against them.
    In a perfect world (where is that by the way?) we'd all leave our names....but this is not that place. I doubt there would be much, if any, interaction or commenting there if anonymity wasn't allowed.
    This blog works, plain and simple. It works because of the anonymous participation.
    I know because I am the blog administrator and I remain anonymous myself.
    You might want to tell "TLJ" that I recognize those initials so maybe he wants to change them to "ANON"


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