Why Hyperlocals Are Making Anonymity Obsolete

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I don’t ordinarily read anonymous comments, but “patriotmommy” stopped my browsing eyes recently on Patch’s Reston, Va., site. I was reading an upbeat story about graduation at the high school where my two daughters were educated. The article noted that South Lakes High produced a “record number” of International Baccalaureate candidates this year. At the end of the story, the first comment — at 5:34 a.m. — was from patriotmommy, who dissed the whole IB business:

“The results for the [IB] exams will not be known until mid-July. Only then will South Lakes learn how many out of the 95 IB Diploma Candidates will actually earn the IB Diploma. It will not be 100%, and my heart goes out to however many of those 95 students who went through all of the pomp and circumstance only to be deflated and disappointed in the end.”

Three hours later, Stu Gibson, a local school board member, using his real name, prodded patriotmommy to reveal she was actually Lisa McLoughlin, the administrator of New York-based TruthAboutIB, which is an anti-IB Political Action Committee.

Patriotmommy’s virtual visit to Reston was just one of her many click-ins around the country on behalf of her cause: South Cobb, Ga., Greenwich Conn., Stow, Vt., Redondo Beach, Calif., etc. Lisa McLoughlin and TruthAboutIB have the constitutional right to express their opinions and politick for them, including on Patch and other hyperlocal sites. But many hyperlocals are deciding they don’t want to be platforms for anonymous opinions.

Most of the editors who contributed to a new ethics handbook for local websites, “Rules of the Road,” require real names to be attached to comments on their sites. (Prominent exceptions include the indie West Seattle Blog and Gatehouse Media’s Wicked Local.)

Says Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian in Batavia, N.Y.:

“We have a real-name policy…If you have people commenting in a public forum, especially in a small community, readers have a right to know whether that’s a former elected official or somebody who works for the state senator, or just a bitter businessman that got screwed over.”

Driving this tougher attitude toward anonymity is the new way hyperlocals and other websites are looking at their user traffic.  The old benchmark was page views, and the verbal slugfests that anonymous posters started and abetted often produced traffic spikes. But more refined user analytics are stressing engagement over PVs. Engaged users, analytics show, may be a minority of a site’s total audience, but return more often and, in doing so, are more likely to click on more pages of content, and–very importantly–ads.  In other words, quality trumps quantity.

The social media revolution is helping to push anonymity to the margins. Millions of Internet users willingly put their names and biographies out for public view, and attach to them an often uninhibited testament of their likes and dislikes. The conventional argument for anonymity–that public identification will discourage people from speaking out–doesn’t seem to apply to the 750 million users of Facebook or the 200 million on Twitter.

Defending fictitious names, Topix CEO Chris Tolles says his site’s 35,000 mostly anonymous forums are an important sources of news, especially in smaller communities. But many Topix forums bear little relationship to what’s news in the communities where they appear. The most active Topix forum in many Virginia communities through last month was about a proposed state constitutional amendment exempting Virginia veterans from property taxes–action that was approved by voters in November 2010.  Somebody should send an anonymous news update to Topix’s forum editors.

Many sites that remain open to anonymity moderate comments to limit ranters who indulge in racism and other transgressive behavior.  But moderation didn’t prevent some New Jersey hyperlocal sites from being used by anonymous posters to wage no-holds-barred Internet campaigns against local political candidates. (The Alternative Press hyperlocal network in New Jersey dropped its user forums altogether for signed letters to the editor and guest columns several years ago for precisely that reason.) One way to prevent forums from being turned into political bots is requiring all users, including anonymous ones, to register with an independent verification service.

Longtime blogger Anil Dash of the Dashes blog, is a passionate advocate for Web transparency, but he’s proposed a creative solution that doesn’t require an absolute ban on anonymity. “Let users pick a handle that is attached to all of their contributions in a consistent way where other people can see what they’ve done on the site,” he says. “Don’t make reputation a number or a score, make it an actual representation of the person’s behavior.”

His admonition to every site that accommodates anonymous comments: “Fix your communities. Stop allowing and excusing destructive and pointless conversations to be the fuel for your business.”

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Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.