My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Monday, April 12, 2010

News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments

Note: This article is NOT about education ... but is about anonymous postings, which seems relevant on my blog. I'd be interested in anonymous or (ideal) non-anonymous comments on whether I should restrict comments to those willing to own them. I've resisted moving to such a policy because I know there are teachers and parents who want to share their views, but fear consequences from doing so. However, it now seems like no one will own their comment even on very non-controversial topics (e.g., Spanish K to 6, more study halls versus larger class sizes in the HS). This blog works best when people are respectful and a real dialogue can therefore occur, even when people disagree with each other (and with me) - and having to own one's comments makes that more likely. But I also don't want to cut off the thoughtful comments that can and do occur by anonymous posters.

The New York Times


Published: April 11, 2010

From the start, Internet users have taken for granted that the territory was both a free-for-all and a digital disguise, allowing them to revel in their power to address the world while keeping their identities concealed.

Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, is suing The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, led by Susan Goldberg, saying the paper violated her privacy in reporting on comments sent from her e-mail address.

A New Yorker cartoon from 1993, during the Web’s infancy, with one mutt saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” became an emblem of that freedom. For years, it was the magazine’s most reproduced cartoon.

When news sites, after years of hanging back, embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments, the near-universal assumption was that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. But now, that idea is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites.

The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months, and one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names.

The New York Times, The Post and many other papers have moved in stages toward requiring that people register before posting comments, providing some information about themselves that is not shown onscreen.

The Huffington Post soon will announce changes, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing.

“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland recently discovered that anonymous comments on its site, disparaging a local lawyer, were made using the e-mail address of a judge who was presiding over some of that lawyer’s cases.

That kind of proxy has been documented before; what was more unusual was that The Plain Dealer exposed the connection in an article. The judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold, denied sending the messages — her daughter took responsibility for some of them. And last week, the judge sued The Plain Dealer, claiming it had violated her privacy.

The paper acknowledged that it had broken with the tradition of allowing commenters to hide behind screen names, but it served notice that anonymity was a habit, not a guarantee. Susan Goldberg, The Plain Dealer’s editor, declined to comment for this article. But in an interview she gave to her own newspaper, she said that perhaps the paper should not have investigated the identity of the person who posted the comments, “but once we did, I don’t know how you can pretend you don’t know that information.”

Some prominent journalists weighed in on the episode, calling it evidence that news sites should do away with anonymous comments. Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald columnist, wrote recently that anonymity has made comment streams “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.”

No one doubts that there is a legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work, or may even offend their neighbors, without having to give their names, said William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school.

“But a lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher,” he said. “People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown.”

He said news organizations were willing to reconsider anonymity in part because comment pages brought in little revenue; advertisers generally do not like to buy space next to opinions, especially incendiary ones.

The debate over anonymity is entwined with the question of giving more weight to comments from some readers than others, based in part on how highly other readers regard them. Some sites already use a version of this approach; Wikipedia users can earn increasing editing rights by gaining the trust of other editors, and when reviews are posted on, those displayed most prominently are those that readers have voted “most helpful” — and they are often written under real names.

Hal Straus, interactivity editor of The Washington Post, said, “We want to be able to establish user tiers, and display variations based on those tiers.” The system is still being planned, but he says it is likely that readers will be asked to rate comments, and that people’s comments will be ranked in part based on the trust those users have earned from other readers — an approach much like the one The Huffington Post is set to adopt. Another criterion could be whether they use their real names.

But experience has shown that when users help rank things online, sites may have to guard against a concerted campaign by a small group of people voting one way and skewing the results.

A popular feature on The Wall Street Journal’s site lets readers decide whether they want to see only those comments posted by subscribers, on the theory that the most dedicated readers might make for a more serious conversation.

A few news organizations, including The Times, have someone review every comment before it goes online, to weed out personal attacks and bigoted comments. Some sites and prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, simply do not allow comments.

Some news sites review comments after they are posted, but most say they do not have the resources to do routine policing. Many sites allow readers to flag objectionable comments for removal, and make some effort to block comments from people who have repeatedly violated the site’s standards.

If commenters were asked to provide their real names for display online, some would no doubt give false identities, and verifying them would be too labor-intensive to be realistic. But news executives say that merely making the demand for a name and an e-mail address would weed out much of the most offensive commentary.

Several industry executives cited a more fundamental force working in favor of identifying commenters. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions — to say nothing of personal details — with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.

“There is a younger generation that doesn’t feel the same need for privacy,” Ms. Huffington said. “Many people, when you give them other choices, they choose not to be anonymous.”


Anonymous said...

just if you stopped anom. can you tell if someone is using a real name or using a made-up name or signing someone else's name on purpose?

Anonymous said...

I am among the Anonymous because I feel I should remain anonymous when talking about things that might possibly identify students, staff or families were I to use my real name.

In addition to being illegal, it also seems immoral for me to say anything that could identify a child or his/her family. And yet I resent the idea that I gave up my voice as a citizen when I became a district employee.

Being Anonymous allows me to live in both worlds.

Anonymous said...

to be perfectly honest, I usually choose anon because Im to lazy to sign in. if I had to I would. And I'd make sure what I had to say was something Id own up to, so go for it!

Gavin Andresen said...

I don't have a good answer.

I'd like to see more people "own" their comments, but if you tried to enforce non-anonymous comments I think you'd get the same six people commenting and everybody else being quiet AND people trying to game the system by making up fake identities.

Ideally, you'd have an independent third-party moderator who disapproved anything "impolite," sending bad comments back to the commenter asking them to refrain from personal attacks, completely off-topic comments, foul language, etc.

But that's a lot of work, and no matter what, the moderator will be accused at some point of playing favorites.

Localocracy is trying "you must use your real name" (and they're building infrastructure to deal with people trying to get around that requirement); it'll be interesting to see how that works out.

Anonymous said...

It's all a crock. Journalists are the biggest hypocrites. What have many journalists gone to jail for and defend as one of their most important rights and responsibilities,.. the right to keep their source anonymous.

So give me a break, as for all these people who claim to sign their names, I wouldn't know Ed, Joel, Abby, Kevin, etc, from Adam. Everyone on this blog except for a few who sign their full names consistently are for all practical purposes, anonymous. I wouldn't even know who Larry4K was if he had not been a public nuisance for years(that's a complement Larry).

Finally, unless you are very new in town you know that EVERYTHING you say is held against you and will be taken out on you eventually, unless you are independently wealthy or work in a private, completely non government or school related field.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that almost none of the last 100 people visiting this blog were from Amherst? Who are the non-Amherst people visiting this site? How weird. Who cares whether people identify themselves by name, they should tell us where they really live.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that almost none of the last 100 people visiting this blog were from Amherst? Who are the non-Amherst people visiting this site?

You want to be careful with that if you are going with IP addresses. Three reasons.

First, I can't be the only person who posts on the road. Most McDonalds (although *not* the Hadley one) have free WiFi now. As do a lot of motels and such.

Second, at best the IP address is where the computer accessed the internet, there still are dial-in modems and such.

Third, if I were an employee of the district, I would be hiding myself behind another IP address. Of course, if I wanted to hide and be sure that no one ever figured out who I was, I would use a laptop that had never been logged into the school district network and use the UM-provided wireless downtown. All anyone could ever get would be the telephone pole I was near when I posted - nothing more.

And this is anonymous because I don't want a public record of my knowledge of masking IP addresses....

Anonymous said...

I don't know why anyone wants to bother making comments here anyway. Once CS has an idea and makes up her mind about it, there is no changing that opinion. No matter how much evidence there is that her idea is maybe not such a great idea and no matter how many posters say they are not in favor of it. CS says that many parents tell her they want their ES students dabbling in Spanish and so she suggests it at a SC meeting. Now, many have posted here why it's not such a great idea right now because there are so many other instructional needs at the ES. Does that deter CS? Change her mind? No, she says she ignores what is posted here and only goes by what parents have told her...presumable these parents are friends of her or at least acquaintenances. So, unless you actually know CS, your opinion doesn't count.

Now, CS will tell you she is only one vote out of 5 - but then you have Steve Rivkin, who has NEVER disagreed with an opinion of CS's. Then, you add CS and SR clone, Rob Spence, to the mix..and presto..whatver CS wants, CS gets.

I fully expect that the SC will direct the Superintendent to begin Spanish dabbling for all in the ES starting September 2010, whether it makes sense fiscally or educationally or not. All because a few parents told CS this is what they want.

Why would anyone bother to comment here. It's a waste of time. Sure, its a good way to have a discussion...but the discussion and comments have no affect on anyone.

Anonymous said...

So 80 of the last 100 posters are Amherst residents traveling???? Or school employees who want to hide??? So this blog is dominated by school employees or/and Amherst residents on the road? What's up with this?

Why won't people identify themselves, i.e. "I am a teacher who thinks..."

Amherst resident, not traveling.

Anonymous said...

That's totally untrue. You obviously don't know what you're talking about.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 10:04 - first, how ironic that you posted this anonymously to criticize me! Sounds like exactly what the article was describing! So, let me clarify for you the key thing - when people, like you, post anonymously, I have no idea who they are. They could be a person I've never met who lives in Utah. They could be someone who hates the Amherst schools and runs a nearby Charter school. They could be a teacher whose position will be eliminated in order to hire a Spanish teacher. In fact, they could all be the SAME person! So, when you write "all these posts saying it is a bad idea", those posts could all be from YOU!

Now, let me clarify how members of the SC learn information: people, using their actual names, send us emails describing their thoughts. Interestingly, many of these emails have come to all members of the SC supporting the idea of Spanish (and a few opposing it) -- and these are from many people I don't know (many are from CF parents). That is a better way of learning about the community's view, since we can then be sure it isn't all just ONE PERSON posting anonymously on a blog who may or may not even live in Amherst!

One final thing -- go through the last SC meetings on TV and see who votes together. Do you notice that a lot of the time I voted with Irv and Kathleen? Are they also "my clones"? Or is it just easier to peg Steve and Rob as "my clones" (these are adult men with advanced degrees)?

And one final thing. In 2002, a group of 200 parents gathered a petition to ask for Spanish. I didn't have any kids in the schools then, nor was I aware of this petition. In 2006, Jere Hochman formed a group to study having a dual-language school at CF. In 2008, Jere Hochman formed a world language committee of teachers in our schools which recommended adding K to 6 world language. I had no involvement in any of those initiatives ... but it speaks to a LONG STANDING desire among many people in our community to teach K to 6 world language. This is not a new idea, and it isn't even my idea -- but I believe you are opposing it simply because you, whoever you are (from your safe anonymous perch), don't like me.

So, have the courage to write an email, using your name, to the whole SC describing why this idea of teaching Spanish is a bad one. And I'm sure I'll take it very seriously, as will all of my clones. But that's the way you get my attention - use your name and own your comments.

Abbie said...

Gee, it seems that I've been wasting time posting on this blog. Here all along I was under the mistaken belief that by participating and raising issues and debating strengths and weaknesses that it might actually influence Catherine's thinking and maybe other SC members that read the blog.

While providing information about the SC is a great service, I don't understand why there is the option to post opinions? I don't think I'll bother anymore...unless I have misunderstood.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Abbie - first, thanks for using your name!

Second, let me clarify. This blog is my way of sharing information and having a dialogue with parents/teachers/community members. I have definitely heard things on this blog that changed my mind or influenced my thinking -- including closing MM, redistricting lines, and funding priorities. The information is most useful to me, however, when it is attached to a name (like yours always is), so that I can determine how many different voices I'm hearing from (as you've often noted yourself, MOST people do not even bother to identify themselves as a consistent anonymous person -- e.g., Curious Observer, or Amherst Advocate, or ARHS Parent). I think it is clear that some people post more than one time anonymously, and thus simply counting the number of comments is not a good way of getting a sense of community opinion - which was what this person was suggesting (e.g., if most anonymous posts are anti-Spanish, should I take that to mean most parents are anti-Spanish?). And the SC does get regular emails from people who share their own views, and my views are also influenced by THOSE emails (and letters, and calls) which my blog readers aren't seeing. For example, in the case of Spanish, we've definitely received more "pro-Spanish" letters than "con-Spanish" letters (which seems to not be the case on my blog - but again, it isn't clear whether that is because one anonymous person repeatedly posts negative comments).

Third, I have no idea whether other members of the SC (except for Rick!) or the administration read my blog -- so people should certainly NOT assume that posting on my blog is a way of communicating with the whole SC or the administration. Thus, if you want to make sure your comments are heard by the whole SC (and not potentially just me and Rick), email the SC directly:

In sum, I do like the dialogue, and I learn from it - and thus I allow posting, and I hope you (and others) will continue sharing your thoughts (pro or con) about my ideas, strengths/weaknesses in our schools, etc. But I hope people will understand that (a) comments that people own are weighted more heavily in my mind (as is noted in this article) since I can be certain who the person is (e.g., I know you live in Amherst and are a parent), and (b) I know that a given comment is attributed to one person (assuming that you are not also posting repeatedly anonymously).

Anonymous said...


This is a politically charged environment in which some people believe that retribution is possible. Others who have no problems with the system currently in place find this hard to believe.

Anonymous posting without gratuitous criticisms are appropriate to this forum.


Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anon 12:21 - good points. Thanks.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Catherine, I am in favor of you keeping the anonymous posting option. I agree with others that there are some readers who do not feel comfortable posting under their names either due to the nature of their positions (i.e. they may be teachers or administrators expressing their personal opinions) or due to perceived and/or real impact on themselves and/or their families. Many anonymous posters make what I consider good contributions to the discussions here.

Anonymous said...

There are three reasons why postings need to be kept anonymous.

First, it is scary what is already out on the internet and how little privacy we have. If you are registered to vote in Amherst, the first 5 digits of your social security number, month & year of your birth, and a whole bunch more really private stuff is out there. I didn't look but I believe I could not only get the names of her children but the first five digits of their social security numbers.

This is new in the past decade, it is scary, and we won't even get into the concept of relational databases. And there is way, way, WAY too much about me out there already on the internet.

Second, there is the concept of anonymous leaks - and a long history of anonymous postings. The Federalist Papers were posted anonymously, SCOTUS ruled a few years back that municipalities may not require authors of political pamphlets to identify themselves.

This is important because there is a very real likelyhood of retaliation for upsetting powerful people. I am a UMass student. I wrote a comment to a story on the Collegian's (UM Paper) website and the next thing I know I am finding copies of my comment in my academic and judicial files. If you go through the FIRE website ( you will find countless examples of colleges going after kids for stuff posted on Facebook.

And third, when we are dealing with K-12 and the illusion of adult behavior, it is important that students not see their teachers and administrators being anything other than pagodas of virtue. The issue I have with Marc Jackson was not that he was insubordinate to a superior (that is what got John Lombardi fired, btw) but that he did it in public in front of his students.

There are school districts in Florida that are now stating - as district policy - that teachers may not have Facebook pages. A blanket ban.

Now there probably are a few people other than Catherine (who got a copy emailed to her) who can tell who I am. If you have taught writing for any period of time, it is really easy to identify writing styles. But you don't know. And it is the exact same thing as press shield laws - if the newspaper industry is willing to give up anonymous sources and to abandon all press shield protections, then they are on solid ground to request that no one else be anonymous.

But until then, lets keep what little privacy we have.....

Anonymous said...

OK, Ed.

Anonymous said...

If you ban anonymous posting, the teachers will leave the comments section. This despite the fact that school employees have been most critical publicly of the very existence of this blog.

But that trumps all other considerations, I would submit.
You would suppress one whole branch of the discussion, even if it is the branch that loves to rip you.

Rich Morse

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

A long time ago, I had a blog, or two or three. And I have given this topic, and its twin – editing or removing comments – a fair amount of thought.

My conclusions: the web is a free-for-all. It is its strength, and its weakness, and it is why it has been a fundamental paradigm shift in information and communication.

So, caveat emptor.

I have no problem with anonymous commenters. They have the potential to be valuable and the potential to be worthless, just like anyone who identifies him or herself. (And really: unless you’re using a first and last name, you are still “anonymous.” If you just use a first name, or you use a cute moniker like “Wise Property Owner,” then you aren’t actually accountable for your comments. Some of us may know or suspect who you are, but really, that’s a lot closer to anonymity than accountability.) But that’s fine by me. Because we all bring “baggage” and “bias” to how our comments are received. Individually, that is specific, i.e., you see a comment from me, and you say “Well, I know that Stephanie thinks X, Y and Z, so that is part of the context in which I take in her comment.” That’s reality.

Anonymous commenters face a similar situation of being pre-judged, but they are judged as part of the larger anonymous pack. Some will disregard them entirely. Some assume they are someone in particular (or all the same person.) Some assume they are cowardly for not identifying themselves, while others assume they are people of importance with a vital reason for hiding their identities. Some will let every individual comment stand alone on its merits, signed or unsigned, and take them all at face value. Some read a blog’s posts but ignore ALL its comments, because they are not seen as collectively compelling or valuable. Plus every combination of these and more. That’s all reality too.

We all bear the burden of who we are – and how we are perceived – when we offer our thoughts on the web, whether we do that with or without attribution.

Are people nastier when they are anonymous? On average, yes, for sure. But obviously, anons do not have a monopoly on nasty or obnoxious. I don’t even have a particular problem with nastiness. My attitude has always been that if you want to show your true colors to the world – with or without your name – I’m happy for you to do that. If it lowers my opinion of you, or makes me discount your rant (and potentially, your future offerings) entirely, that’s your problem – it’s the risk you take. But I don’t think readers need to be “protected” from that.

All this being said, I faced much less nastiness, and much less anonymity on my sites, so perhaps I have not been really tested as a site administrator. I did edit out some swears. I did receive and reject my fair share of entreaties to remove posts that some people found inappropriate or offensive or worse. And I recognized that those decisions had some effect on my readership – positive and negative.

Hey, you play the game, you take your chances. If we wanted to please all of the people all of the time, none of us would be offering our opinions publicly, on blogs or via elected positions. And if we wanted to feel warm and fuzzy all the time, we wouldn’t be reading blogs. (Or maybe we would read warm and fuzzy blogs… Note to self: must Google warm and fuzzy blogs…)

Good topic. Thanks.

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe

Anonymous said...

Thank you Stephanie O'Keeffe for a thoughtful post.

Mary E.Carey said...

Yes, great topic, Catherine. Thanks for pointing out that article which I'd missed. I'm all for stopping anonymous posting and verifying that people are who they say they are by calling them at first, if necessary. This is what newspapers that I know of do. It could be a lot of work, but I think you could find a student assistant.

(What you're doing with this blog would be a great research project for someone. I think expecting officials to write about their decisions and post documents is the wave of the future. These are things that take reporters quite a lot of time to do now that they could use to do something else.)

My guess is that the number of comments would diminish at first and then pop back up. I think the extra effort and self restraint that non-anonymous posting would encourage would be good for the local civic culture.

Teachers like Nina, who identifies herself, have added a lot to the discussion and I expect non-anonymous commenters would want to encourage them to participate.

LarryK4 said...

90% of time the only thing that matters are the words: do they ring true with the evidence presented?

But that other 10%--where speakers push the envelope--folks may wonder about the veracity of the source.

That's why a good journalist would like a second reliable source saying the same thing.

And, unlike Nina, NOT one invested in the system.