What Riles Up Anonymous Online Posters, And Why

Anonymous commenting on many websites often deteriorates into rants, attacks or virtual free-for-alls. Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe decided to find out who some of his paper's anonymous posters are, and what drives them.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The website of many newspapers and other news organizations allow readers to post comments anonymously. There are plusses - a gay kid in high school can write openly about her experiences. A disappointed customer can name names. But there are problems, too. Anonymity can allow authors to review their own books, and more and more discussions of hot-button news stories can devolve into insults, name calling, even hate.

Anonymity is the accepted standard on the Internet. And while site monitors try to maintain an air of civility, that's sometimes a losing battle. Some news sites have changed policies, others are considering it. Reporter Neil Swidey identified a central problem: Nobody knows who these prolific posters are and what motivates them. We'll find out what he learned in just a moment.

We want to hear from you. If you frequently post anonymously online, what motivates you? And if you've been a victim of online posting, if you moderate online comments, we'd like to hear your story, as well. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

The - Boston Globe Magazine staff writer Neil Swidey joins us now from the studios of member station WBUR. And thanks very much for taking time on this holiday Monday.

Mr. NEIL SWIDEY (Staff Writer, Boston Globe Magazine): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And your article begins with a description of the problem that followed on Boston.com after the news site ran a story about President Obama's aunt who is in the country illegally, but then given permission to stay.

Mr. SWIDEY: Exactly. And that story pulled together a lot of the different strands that are sometimes the most contentious issues on online news sites, and those had to do with, you know, immigration, taxes, President Obama, and this whole Birther movement - all those together in one issue. And so it really pulled out all the good and the bad of this vox pop out there.

CONAN: And there are moderators on that site who try to maintain the civility, but they were a little overwhelmed, it sounded like.

Mr. SWIDEY: Exactly. I was - for that part of the story, I kind of went into the moderator's mind for that point to kind of see what they were dealing with. And the onslaught of these comments was incredible because, first, there - a trickle initially in the first minute or two was fairly innocuous comments. And then, by about three minutes after it was posting, the comments just started getting really nasty and kind of make you want to shower, mean.

And the moderators, who are balancing and watching comments going all over the site - you know, there are, you know, more than 6,000 a day just on this site alone - were figuring out what to do and who was crossing the line. And they had to take action.

CONAN: And eventually, they just shut down and pulled all the comments.

Mr. SWIDEY: Yeah. And that - why I use that incident to start the story was that it really, I think, showcased the issue in its real light, and that was, you know, there's this give-and-take with anonymity and with a free expression in the back-and-forth of comments. But when you get to that tipping point where the nastiness kind of outweighs the thoughtful comments or even the, you know, pretty contentious issues but still done in a responsible way, then, in this case, the moderators took a fairly rare step of just shutting down the comments. On some stories, they never turn them on, on stories having to do with personal tragedies because through experience, they've found those really just don't end well.

CONAN: And it's interesting, as you point out in the story, these are the equivalent of letters to the editor from the old days. But letters to the editor always required a name and an address.

Mr. SWIDEY: A name, an address, daytime telephone number, sometimes a letter from your priest or rabbi. I mean, you needed some verification to get in there, and the differential is quite stark by the same news organizations that are running both, in some ways operating in parallel universes. But, of course, the Web grew up with anonymity in a way that newspapers didn't.

CONAN: And anonymity seems to be central to the culture.

Mr. SWIDEY: It does. I think that expectation is there, and it began fairly early on in the Web's life was pushed by, if you can remember back to those dial-up days with America Online, when you had multiple screen names...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SWIDEY: ...because you had one account in the family and six people on it, maybe. So that sort of opened the gate, I think, for people using names that weren't their real names. And then that just sort of built-in to the expectation, became embedded in it.

CONAN: We're talking with Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe magazine. 800-989-8255. Are you an inveterate poster, anonymously online? Have you ever crossed the line? Give us a call. We'd also like to hear your emails or read your emails. 800-989-8255. Email is: talk@npr.org.

And let's go first to Carrie(ph), Carrie with us from Westfield in Michigan.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi. I am a one-time anonymous poster. I posted on a popular website among, I guess, young people, would be how to describe us. It's where you essentially ask people to ask you questions anonymously.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CARRIE: And there's - I've never had one and I've only ever posted one thing. But the popular questions are, you know, are you a virgin? Who do you like? All of that. But the one time I posted it was because I was frustrated with a girl that I went to high school with and she - since she went to high school, really - or went to college, she really didn't - wasn't saying anything...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CARRIE: ...with substance. And it was all - it seemed all very fake. And so in a moment of passive-aggressive rage, I asked her why she wasn't using her personality. And that's the only time Ive ever anonymously posted.

CONAN: It - I can understand - I can detect a little embarrassment there.

CARRIE: I am a little embarrassed. It's the first time I'd ever done something like that. It was a rash decision made on the Internet at 3:00 in the morning. But at the same time, while I'm embarrassed, I think that it served its purpose because this girl has been, from what I can understand from other social networking sites, has been talking about books that she's reading and talking about art that she's gone to see and conversations with her friends. And so, maybe in some weird, twisted way, it actually made her look at herself and what she was saying.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, Carrie. Appreciate it.

CARRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

CARRIE: Bye.

CONAN: She would not fit - there's an interesting formula you cite, Neil Swidey, in the book: 90-9-1.

Mr. SWIDEY: Right. That holds up across a lot of studies on online social communities and that is that about 90 percent of the people who are lurkers, they are watching but never really contributing, they don't post comments but they read the comments. About nine percent are infrequent commenters, infrequent participants. And about one percent are the people who are commenting all the time and pretty much dominating the discussion.

I called those, in my story, heavy users, borrowing the term from the fast food industry for the people who go to Burger King or McDonald's for most of their meals in the week. And what was fascinating to me was that Burger King and McDonald's had whole teams of researchers studying who these people, who their heavy users are, what they want and what their quirks are, so they can make more money from them or understand them better.

And one of the byproducts of anonymity is that news websites know precious little about who these people are who are their heavy users.

CONAN: And through the Boston Globe, you solicited some of the heavy users to submit to interviews, those who'd be willing to, and got the chance to talk to a few of them. And you talked to a political conservative who posted every day, several times, a political liberal who did the same. And yet, they all seemed to be within the realms of, shall we say, rationality.

Mr. SWIDEY: Yeah. And that was - that actually is comforting in that all the heavy users aren't the so-called trolls. The trolls are the people who are the bomb throwers. And what's interesting is, I targeted people on the site who were interesting. I wanted to get a cross-section of people who are really involved and active, and people - other people commented about. And I went after some trolls, some liberals, some conservatives. And the trolls were the people who didn't want to talk. They seem to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.

The others - a lot of the heavy users, the liberal and conservative that you mentioned, the sports fan as well, we're willing with, you know, some cajoling to come forward and to speak about what motivates them.

CONAN: And what - it was interesting that was motivated them was, in a sense, a sense of community.

Mr. SWIDEY: Exactly. And that, for me, was the most interesting revelation because I sort of go into this, and I think most people probably do, thinking these guys are lone wolves, you know, they're bomb throwers or, you know, like to provoke. And certainly, the people I found liked the pithy comments, they liked to provoke and get a reaction. But they did - when you peeled it away, did want community.

There's a certain function on a lot of websites called the recommend or a like function where other people will click off something if they want to recommend someone's comments. And I found that these heavy users, a lot of them, that's the metric by which they view their day, how many recommends they get.

CONAN: And it was interesting, one - there was a slur directed at the sports fan who uses, as it turns out just coincidentally, an Asian-sounding handle on her account. She doesn't happen to be that. But when the slur was directed at her, her fellow posters rallied to her defense.

Mr. SWIDEY: Yeah, exactly, this is - Yoshimi(ph) was her name. And she used to in martial arts so that was her handle from beginning. And she's part of this sports forum. She's on there sometimes five hours a day. And she gets to know all the other people, or thinks she does. And that was interesting, too, because they spent so much time together, they sort of know. And she would tell me, well, this guy - he must have young kids because he's always checking off on 8:30 at night to put the kids to bed. And this one's in a band and - but they all assumed that she was Asian just because of her name.

And so when a troll sort of threw out this anti-Asian slur, all these people came to her defense, which in some ways was reaffirming for that community and the protection that they had and the cohesion within that community. But also, it was kind of built on a false assumption to begin with.

CONAN: We're talking with Neil Swidey, a staff writer at the Boston Globe magazine, author of the piece "Inside the Mind of the Anonymous Online Poster." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Sarah(ph), Sarah with us from Portland.

SARAH (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Sarah.

SARAH: Hi. I've been a blog moderator and writer for about six years, blogging about parenting, among other things. And also, I've been in the news a lot because I'm kind of, you know, well-connected in social media and I kind of go out on a limb. And I've had people say really, really nasty things about me, you know, under the protection of anonymity.

Like, you know, I was in the news because I tried to go through a drive-thru on my bike with my kids and I had people, you know, accusing me of being obese, and lazy, and because I, you know, was going through a drive-thru, and fast food drive-thru - and telling me that they saw me at that place and, you know, wanted to run me over in their SUV.

CONAN: Run you over?

SARAH: With my kids. Yeah. And, you know, I've had people, you know, I was in a newspaper article about people who, you know, cook and stay home with their children and I had a picture taken in my kitchen and people were commenting that, you know, they're - how dirty I looked and how they would never want to eat in my kitchen and how it's disgusting and that there must be rat droppings. And I was, you know...

CONAN: And I...

SARAH: And I was, you know, abusing my children by cooking for them in this kitchen.

CONAN: And I suspect, Sarah, you've allowed - made some allowance for the fact that we're on a family radio program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But Neil Swidey, this kind of invective, this is not unusual.

Mr. SWIDEY: It isn't. And that is really the downside to this. I came to the conclusion that a general standard for whether someone is adding to the discussion or not is this idea of would you say it face to face. Now, there are certain comments like you - that I mentioned in the article and that you opened up with, the closeted student being able to talk, you know, where anonymity makes sense. But those generally are the exceptions.

In the main, I found that people who by and large add something to the discussion are people that would say it face to face, even though it could be charged, even though it can be diametrically opposed politically, they'll say it face to face. And those who wouldn't say something face to face, by and large, are not adding to the discussion.

CONAN: Sarah, I suspect those people would not say those things to your face, so...

SARAH: No, no. Rarely does someone say anything like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And nobody says it to anybody's face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sarah, I apologize on behalf of humanity.

SARAH: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

SARAH: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bobby(ph) in Buffalo. The Buffalo News is changing their policy in the coming weeks, shifting from anonymous posts to requiring names and cities in like letters to the editor. Though it's unfortunate that free speech needs to be handled this way, but it's important to remember that freedom of speech has never equaled anonymous speech. If you wouldn't put your name on it, you shouldn't say it at all.

Mr. SWIDEY: You know, that's interesting, and that movement is generally happening. A sort of mid-range view of that is the idea that news sites need to know more about who these people are who are commenting, so that they can kind of protect that sense of community. And that there is a certain social contract that, you know, that sports forum that I mentioned earlier...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SWIDEY: ...has a sense of cohesion in it so that is part of the social contract, that even though real names aren't attached to that, there's a kind of reputational imprint on the behavior. And people are going to do things that are going to be embarrassed, they're going to feel the wrath of this community coming together for that. Where I think that social contract breaks down is when there isn't a sense of community and there isn't any obligation to use your real name.

CONAN: But...

Mr. SWIDEY: So that's, I think, what news sites are grappling with, how to do that.

CONAN: And that middle ground, though, you say does not protect the news organization necessarily. They may know the identity of the poster, but they're reviewing their own book.

Mr. SWIDEY: Exactly. And that - we saw that happen in Cleveland with the plane dealer's website, where they were sort of - became aware of a judge who was commenting about - allegedly commenting about cases appearing before her. And they went public with that. She sued them in saying it wasn't really her. It creates, you know, a real mess. So that sometimes that - even just that middle ground knowledge complicates more than it clarifies.

CONAN: And even if it was her, she had a right to expect anonymity.

MR. SWIDEY: She did in that case, yes, because that was what they were promising. But the idea that a judge should be, if the allegations are true, commenting about cases that are appearing before her is just outrageous. And so, the news sites then have an obligation to report that if they have credible evidence that that's what's happening. So that's where you get into this real thicket.

CONAN: Well, Neil Swidey, thank you very much for a very provocative article. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. SWIDEY: Thanks so much, Neal. It's great talking with you.

CONAN: Neil Swidey, staff writer for the Boston Globe magazine. You can find a link to his article "Inside the Mind of the Anonymous Online Poster" at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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