Friday, February 20, 2009

The twin problems of anonymous and unmoderated

When I was researching my paper on open-source journalism last year, I often cited a concept from Axel Bruns’ Gatewatching, which I think sums up the advantages of Internet-powered, grassroots information sharing better than anything else: that online stories are not complete in themselves, that they are “unfinished,” and this allows news and information to be shaped by a variety of different players. In other words, it is an ongoing conversation.

I’m sure we all agree that the particular allure of new media is not just the original news post, but also the comments that follow, the re-posting and linking, the agreement, the refutation and the animated discussion that springs from one blog post in a series of hyperlinks, setting off ripples around the blogosphere. Hence, by that philosophy, everything counts as a “response,” even the acts of re-blogging and anonyblogging, which have particularly caused problems to the unique design of the blogging platform, Tumblr, which as Wired puts it, is a “blog with a very short attention span.”

One of the big controversies to hit the new media world in the past week is the banning, and subsequent un-banning of Anonybloggers at Tumblr. Tumblr, which is “twitter with pictures” is an awesome concept because it allows people a way to aggregate a large amount of information in one space. I haven't experimented with it yet, but I know Sarah uses it a great deal.

Despite all its advantages, unfortunately for Tumblr, what it also allows one with a snarky bent of mind to do is – easily, quite lazily – follow someone else’s tumble log, and re-blog everything the person posts, adding one’s own commentary – that can often be nasty, mean, even malicious. Since this was getting out of hand, Tumblr’s founder decided to censor certain blogs, thus sparking a huge debate about Internet censorship. Not surprisingly, within 24 hours, he was forced to lift the ban, because quite simply, there is little place for censorship in this distributive, democratic, new media world.

But should it be OK to simply castigate and mock a chosen target for no good reason except that technology allows you to do it? Some commenters have suggested that one way to avoid this kind of meaningless, controversial, and often hurtful mockery of others – without suppressing speech – would be by banning anonymity in specific sites.

As one commenter said on the lede post’s discussion:

“If you want to stop anonymous harassment, simply stop the anonymity. While we have a right to privacy, anonymity isn’t the same thing; it’s speech without accountability, and it’s what’s emboldening these bitter spite-bloggers anyway.”

Another commenter, like many others, suggests moderation:

“Briefly speaking, moderation has been a critical community management tool on the Internet.....moderation and enforcement allows the target audience to continue using services in comfort and peace without constant disruption or reworking of community functions. Many Internet communities owe their existence to skillful moderation practices.”

It is true that spammers and imposters can often be prevented by simply allowing users to identify themselves and create profiles, and if that doesn’t work, by moderating what they say. But then again, one of the advantages of the Internet is to be able to get important information out there even if it were done from behind a celluloid curtain.

A debate, no doubt, that will go on for as long as the Internet exists.