Why Hyperlocals Are Making Anonymity Obsolete

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.”

** * *

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.


  1. Teresa
    July 28, 2011

    About nine months ago, I started requiring my site visitors to use real names when commenting on stories, and it has transformed the way that people interact with each other on the site. I find that they are no less honest but they are certainly more respectful. The time it takes on the front end to verify names is well worth it, because I spend much less time moderating the comments themselves.
    Teresa Wippel, publisher
    My Edmonds News (Edmonds, Wash.)

  2. July 28, 2011

    Everything we’re doing is about building community, community is about relationships – relationships between real people. I’m glad to see that we’re part of the trend and not in the minority.

    1. July 29, 2011

      Building community is a nice concept, but what you have to realize is there are some people who wish to divide and conquer communities to suit their ideologies. People who have a mission to establish a particular policy, commission, foundation, educational program, etc., have an agenda which may not always be to the BENEFIT of everyone in the community. Those people will go to great lengths to destroy the reputations of those who dare to disagree with their proposed “change” to or “transformation” of any particular community. When it is the UN behind the transformation of a community, people really need to sit up and take notice. With a President in power who is nothing but a puppet of the UN signing away our rights and freedoms as Americans weekly with his Executive Orders (Libya ring a bell?), your average American is rightfully becoming very afraid of attaching their real John Hancock to their thoughts in the Net. Big Brother IS watching.

      1. Anonymous
        July 29, 2011

         Lisa has taken the time to research what most schools will not even answer one single question about or local papers will not print. Imagine, claiming that I was making it up that IB costs extra? That editor had just done a piece on it the month before and should have known.

      2. August 4, 2011

        Given that very few smart technical people go into government work I’m not overly concerned though if you follow that line of thinking commenting anonymously isn’t really much safer. If Big Brother wanted to know who you are they could theoretically track your comment back to your computer – regardless of what name you posted it under.

        To your other point, agendas are good. Nothing is to the benefit of everyone any a community of any size but it’s better to spur candid dialog than rely on half-information and rumors.

    2. Anonymous
      July 29, 2011

       It’s a dangerous trend to stifle opinions because people do not want to be targeted in their own communities by angry leftists who wish to attack them.

      1. August 4, 2011

        Why does requiring real names stifle opinions? It’s not just the commenters that must have real names it’s the reply-ers as well, gadsdengurl. People are welcome to their soapboxes, that’s part of what makes community, but if people are throwing stones it’s sure nice to be able to know who they are.

  3. Sara Clemence
    July 28, 2011

    Newspaper opinion pages have always required full names. As hyperlocal sites take on some of the same roles in  communities, this seems like a smart move. 

    1. July 29, 2011

      The Washington Post allows anonymous tags.

  4. July 29, 2011

    That would be Stow-Munroe Falls, Ohio – not VT. 😉

    This is an interesting discussion. Since you featured me, I feel obliged to add my two cents. Having been a participant in online forums for at least 10 years, the ability to remain anonymous while spouting whatever it is one wishes to spout, has its advantages and disadvantages. The litigious Left is always looking for the opportunity to sue or personally attack anyone who does not agree with them. When the NYT ran an article on IB last year and linked my website, I was inundated with hate mail and even death threats. There are times I regret having ever made my name public in association with this issue. Then again, I stand behind my research and refuse to live in fear. 

    Btw, I have no ads on my website so that kinda blows your theory about trying to increase revenue by linking the site on hyperlocals.  I do have Site Stats which I review to see how readers arrive at my site, what phrases  people are Googling and how many times IBO and .gov visit my site for damage control.   

  5. Anonymous
    July 29, 2011

    well of course since Patch.com is a wholly funded subsidiary of the evil George Soros… that’s the point — expose and discredit other authorities on why IB is communist indoctrination!

     – Teacher 35 years

  6. July 30, 2011

    is it “anonymity” or “transparency” that’s obsolete? *looking at the URL of this posting*

  7. August 13, 2011

    I would like to know what data Chris Tolles is using to substantiate his claim that Topix is an  “important sources of news,
    especially in smaller communities”?  When I do a search for Topix in my town, what comes up are towns which I have never heard of in TX, AR and TN and each of these forums seems to be full of nothing but rumors about people’s personal lives, defamation, smut and who is the hottest 8th grade girl.  Topix continues to create personal and financial problems for hundreds of people.  There is a difference between transparency and anonymity.  In the former, your name is printed with your post.  In the latter, you do login and you can be contacted by the host website, but your real name is not posted.  In the latter, there are deterrents against randomly abusing other people.  But most importantly, Topix lightweight retromoderation insures that damage can still be done before something is deleted – if it is ever deleted.  Please get the full story and I look forward to Tolles data, particularly if accompanies by stats on what percentage of the site use that important news represents.  http://toxictopix.webs.com

  8. January 25, 2012

    Update – 1/25/12 – The Stow Patch has NATIONALLY banned both myself and John Eppolito, from Incline Village, Nevada, from ALL PATCH SITES for providing information about IB to SMF residents. The ONLY Patch editor I have found to be fair and balanced is Tony Schinella of Concord Patch, NH.

    -Lisa McLoughlin

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