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June 29, 2009

Revisited: Anonymity and the Internet's "No-Spine" Problem.

Below is a June 8 WAC? post entitled "The Internet's Spine Problem: 'Big Mouths. No Names'". But indulge us with this introduction. Please don't kid yourself. "Anonymity abuse" is not just about lawyers. With some important exceptions--e.g., you are writing about civil liberties from Cuba, Iran or mainland China, you're a battered housewife, you're in the witness protection program and hiding from contract killers--anonymity on the World Wide Web is unbecoming, unpersuasive, wimpy and, frankly, classless.

Anonymity does not "work" for legal blogging/commenting--or any other serious discussion in Western civilization. The Net is growing up. It's time for people who use it to do the same. "Hiding" behind bogus names, cowardice, and non-accountability are not clever, awesome, slick or cool. Just sad and lame.

Our advice, until we arrive at a new etiquette or regime on this issue? Block, ignore and discourage nameless commenters. Actively diss and make fun of them. They aren't worth it; even they think that.

Anonymity rarely merits your time, thoughts and efforts.

The Internet's Spine Problem: "Big Mouths. No Names".


Mr. Chicken: He comments, and blogs, but doesn't use his real name. Some day he'll become a person, who'll put his real name behind his public thoughts. In the meantime, ignore him.

The marketplace of ideas is not well served by "no-name" writers and thinkers. And if you think about it, anonymous commenters have chosen to be in a lower caste. In a society where by law, or cultural folkways, we are not permitted to discriminate, here's your chance to break the rules for solid reasons. And do some good, too.

Exclude them. Insist on real names--or just block the comment. Exceptions to the requirement of identifying one's self in the blogosphere should be extremely rare.

The Problem: Nameless Bloggers and Commenters. "Hi, I'm Nothing. And No One. Here's what I really think? Very valuable. My opinions are very strong. Want to hear them?" No, sir, I really don't. Who with any character or intelligence would? So why do so many frequent and regular commenters--to this blog and others, in both North America and Europe, legal and non-legal--lack the courage and self-respect to use their real names?

And why do so many bloggers themselves put up with it? For example, see the very fine and enduring Above the Law. There, and at this blog (far less traffic, far fewer comments), the best comments seem to be by actual people who give their actual names. But there are too few of them.

Comments from identified humans are easier to swallow because they have more credibility. A reputation--of a real person, who has taken a risk--backs the comment.

1. At many blogs, the comments are routinely anonymous. Oddly, to me, they appear to be, and often claim to be, from males. "Men". Some no-name comments are wonderful. Some are funny; a few ABL comments are classics, and can be wickedly witty and biting. Some are dumb. Or absurd (that's okay). Some are cries for help. Some are based on horribly unfair innuendo and/or defamatory. Some are vicious.

2. I can be pretty mean and opinionated, too. Even vicious. Sometimes I get paid for that. But I'll sign my name to my ideas--and thereby to all my shortcomings.

3. People who have no spine: an industrial accident, maybe? A war injury? Tell me about that. WAC? is all ears, and we have a big heart.

4. So you don't give your real name. You're dressing it up--the condition of having no-sand--as a "privacy" protection? Is that it?

5. Are no-name commenters just Slaves and Peasants--leading lives of quiet desperation? Are they constantly in fear about losing their jobs? My humble opinion: they hate themselves, or have very little confidence in what they are thinking and saying. But under no circumstances are they worthy of your time--or even your thoughts.

6. I am fascinated by this. How did this all start? Our New Age digital spine deficiency. How can we end it? You know, become real people again. People with courage and character. All those old verities. How brave do you have to be in the blogosphere? Just a bit? Brave enough to use your own name?

7. Can we fine tune the Internet, and blogosphere? The Internet is still very new--and still very much an American phenom. Yanks built it, and will continue to control it, likely for decades. But play time is over. Can we now lead a little? We can make it more valuable, and more useful.

And more responsible and credible. We can make the Internet's dialogue more attractive to the entire world--respected by everyone as a fine and promising experiment in the trade, flow and use of great ideas.

piven blog.bmp

Ari Gold (likely based on one of the Emanuel brothers and played by Jeremy Piven): You might not like him--he's funny but abusive, dismissive and rude, right? But WAC? bets that the real Ari has the sand to use his own name on the Net. (HBO)

One Possible Solution? Well, WAC? is seriously considering a policy of "No Real Name, No Real Publish, Jack". A no-wankers policy. Set up safe and respected no-wank zones. No-wimp zones. "Spine-required" districts. How about just "no-wuss zones"? A little extreme? No, not really. The nameless-pundit problem is a serious and extreme impediment to the reliability, quality and future reputation of the Internet. In short, those folks are making us all look silly. They dumb down, and degrade, a fine project. And we're buying into it by letting them play along with us.

We can't, of course, legislate courage and accountability in the blogosphere, in legal or other communities. But self-respecting and serious bloggers everywhere--all around our New World in many different countries--can insist on maintaining their own sites as no-wuss zones. The marketplace of ideas is very rarely--if ever---well served by "no-name" writers and thinkers. They have nothing to lose by "lobbing in there" anything they feel like--and they are wasting your time, folks.

NWZs might (a) improve dialogues globally (some non-Anglo cultures don't "get" anonymity, or drive-by viciousness or pointless rudeness by fire-breathing no-names) (b) force better content in comments by making people think before they push "publish" or "send". They would make the blogosphere (c) more responsible, and a lot smarter all around. In some cases, NWZs might even help some commenters (d) grow as humans, or grow up.

NWZs would also help (e) reduce the amount of "Ephemera". Insubstantial one-liners in the hands of people who aren't that witty or biting to begin with, or who just don't use words well, is often pathetic. Ephemera. It's something that practicing lawyers, and their business clients, not only strive to avoid, but justifiably look down on, and often even detest as a waste of precious time of life and work.

A Policy of Attraction. "NWZ" policies at enough blogs might have other good and productive effects. Lots of NWZs could (f) attract writers and thinkers not currently very active in the blogosphere to dive in and participate in it. Many talented and forthright people I talk to who are intrigued--and often very surprised--by the fact our firm has a blog, and that I would ever write for such a "techie" device. They still believe the blogosphere is for: younger people, insular techies, digital circus barkers, dilettante journalists, pseudo-philosophers and, frankly, "lightweights" of the first order. Sorry, but that is a fact; lots of people don't think blogging and other forms of social networking is noble or "cool". They are often (not always) laughing at you. I'd love it if the blogosphere were more attractive to them--they might participate.

And a Tool of Retention. Lastly, but importantly, enough NWZs also (g) might encourage talented and well-meaning commenters and bloggers who "have had enough", and who are disillusioned, to stay in the blogosphere.


WAC?'s no-wuss zone will start--if it starts at all--very soon. The proposed rule we promulgate today: "No name. No comment. Screw you." Possible exception: (1) you have an established Internet "personality"; (2) we have met you in person; and (3) we know your real name, and mailing and office address (and know where to serve the summons or subpoena).* I realize that this test would close the doors to many commenters--some with interesting things to say--who regularly weigh in with WAC? But I see no reason to make exceptions.

Comments to this blog are generally fine--and often uplifting and educational. Not all of them. But we have still published 100% of them since August 1, 2005 when we started, even when my staff didn't want some of them published. We know that a few (maybe three) were from people who were fired from, or quit, my law firm, and who were very offended by simple work. But most were from the NYC and LA area--two of my favorite places. They have been from angry "hiders". Okay, they are cowards. A lot of the people who read this blog are, apparently, cowards. Wow. We said it. Also extreme. And also true.

One other new practice I'd like to see, and will adopt immediately myself--and for the other writers of this blog. It's a NW "personal" policy re: commenting on other people blogs which all of us could adopt. If someone enters into a thread on a name-less basis, do not respond to them. Ignore them. Unless circumstances for anonymity are both compelling (there will be a few isolated instances where writers direly need a "protection") and readily understandable, you should feel free to treat the speaker--him, her, them or it--as simply "not there", and never worth engaging.

Comment Period to our WAC? proposed NWZ Rule: June 6 through June 12, 2009. But don't even think about it unless you sign your real name. Identify yourself. We'd all love to know who you really are.

Important Note: If your reason for your "no-name" comments is that you "don't want your employer to know", that won't cut it in WAC?'s world. A suggestion: either work harder and get promoted, or get a better job, one where you can be a person. Thanks to the incomparable Redford, for his inadvertent inspiration: "Big Mouths. No Names." And to the really tiny fearful people--mainly males, I'd wager--born without spines. This one's for you.

*Only two proper exceptions come to mind thus far: The talented and vile but funny GeekLawyer and the erudite Charon QC. WAC? can expose, embarrass and bring either to his/her/its patrician Southern England knees in a heartbeat, at any time. We know where they live. And, quite seriously, they are both first-rate people who care deeply about ideas, lawyering, the quality of the conversation in the blogosphere, and other humans. I've had Diet cokes with both of them, and may see them both again surprisingly soon--if it doesn't rain too heavily and Charon actually shows up at my new fave secret Mayfair hotel this time, and GL, of course, has finished his thrice-yearly 90-day rehab, or his monthly Lincoln Inn remedial morals-and-manners course, when I am next in London.

(Photo first above: from "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken", Universal Pictures, 1966)

Posted by JD Hull at June 29, 2009 11:59 PM


Good points. I take back everything I've said.

Posted by: Pat "Anonymous" Lamb at June 29, 2009 03:50 PM

Perhaps we should go the next step and have a commenter certification program. And then only certified people can comment. One of the certification requirements would be use of real name. What other requirements? I will run the program and charge a hefty amount for the seminars.

Posted by: Stephanie West Allen at June 29, 2009 04:00 PM

I guess I don't really care whether people are required to use their real names or not and that those who do care can and should have a policy requiring that commenters use their real names. Then the question is how you verify someone's name -- a problem since I can set up an email account in the name of my non-existent cat or pet tarantula. I suppose you could ban people who use "anon" but what if I'd signed this "Sparky Pynchon." Am I in or out?

Posted by: Vickie Pynchon at June 29, 2009 04:07 PM

Vickie and Stephanie--Hey thanks, but you guys can do better than that. Getting some class, integrity and credibility on the Net is worth a little work. Don't you think?

You can't make people give their real names. But you can certainly make it more shameful, "not cool" and difficult if they do not. Let's discourage it generally--and save it for people who really need it.

More accountability can't be a bad thing.

Posted by: Hull at June 29, 2009 04:21 PM

Tonight... Dan... I am Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom... you may contact me at 10 Downing Street....

I am of course NOT anonymous as my About section makes clear - but I prefer being Charon to that serious guy with no tache (I shaved it off to stop being anonymous) who is Mike SP.

I am looking forward to Podcast/Lawcast #150....with you

Posted by: Charon QC at June 29, 2009 04:54 PM

Charon--Your anonymity is indeed a very poorly-kept secret, even by you. So you have a pass. In meantime, thanks, once again, for all the help on this issue. Overwhelmed. Dan

Posted by: Hull at June 29, 2009 04:59 PM

I am no fan of the juvenile (sometimes) and downright offensive (frequently) comments by anonymous posters on blogs like ATL. However, I can think of at least three or four good reasons why lawyers discussing legal subjects would want to remain anonymous in discussing those subjects on a public website.

1) Career protection -- Obviously, some of the discussions of legal subjects get into issues regarding one's employer, be it a large law firm, or government agency. A requirement to use real names will chill such conversations.

2) Avoiding client conflicts -- discussions of subjects on blogs such as this could result in a real person revealing their own prejudices, biases and beliefs. But just because one does dislikes large petrochemical companies does not necessarily mean that you are unwilling, or incapable of doing a great job in defense of Exxon in the Exxon Valdez litigation. Lawyers required to use real names would be understandably loathe to expose their feelings, which might erode client confidence in their handling of the client's legal matters. Thus, free and open debate is again stifled.

3) Avoidance of nut cases -- many practicing lawyers have had their share of nut cases who want you to represent them in some matter, or have called you about some matter you have handled. Putting more opinions out there leads to more of that, or to such nut cases believing you were giving them real advice on an internet blog. (To say nothing of the potential exposure for giving legal opinions on public forums in response to questions from people who think they can then rely upon such advice.)

4) Most importantly, however, much of what seems to happen on legal blogs consists of criticizing courts. But how many people who might have to appear in front of Judge Sotomayor on the Supreme Court (if she were to be elevated -- or remaining on the Second Circuit, if she is not) are going to want to pen harsh criticism of any of her opinions, and run the risk of then having a case in front of her. Few, I would imagine.

So, while I agree with the thought that real names will eliminate some of the tedious juvenile criticism, I believe that it stifles some legitimate discourse as well.

Posted by: Doug Johnson at June 29, 2009 09:48 PM

Doug(?): Thanks, appreciated--but none of your 4 categories seem very important when weighed against integrity of the Internet and accountability.

Based on your criteria, anyone and everyone could "lob one in there"--and immediately flee to their holes like burrowing rodents.

Re: clients? Whoa. To Everyone: If you are worried about offending clients on the Net, please get off your knees. And get better-educated clients with a broader frame of reference.

I happen to be a Democrat in past voting patterns; most of our client reps and GCs are clearly not. But they are a broad-minded group. I would never want a client who would hold my "D" voting against me or my firm. I'd rather sell shoes in Flint.

Same on things on courts, Doug.

You are suggesting that good clients and good jurists are small-minded--and that lawyers should therefore be frightened peasants and slaves.

I think clients, courts and lawyers are all better than that. Most humans are sane and fair--and much better than that. You need to take that leap. And lawyers would do well to step up and lead a bit. You know, quit the squirrelly stuff?

Thanks, though, for your time in putting down your thoughts.

Posted by: Hull at June 30, 2009 12:18 AM

Here's my strong statement, using my name: I 75% agree with you. My policy is to give more leeway to those who comment with a name and to be more likely to delete comments from those who comment anonymously. But the reality is that I get many good to great comments from those who comment anonymously and I think the reason they do so is to maintain the freedom to say what they want without their clients/customers being able to ascribe certain views to them.

I never write anonymously mostly because I don't see the point, but I will certainly admit that there are things I don't write that I would write if my name were not attached.

Posted by: Dan Harris at June 30, 2009 01:03 AM

Some of the "best" commenters on the internet comment pseudonymously. And by "best" I mean most entertaining.

Your blog - your call, but pseudonymous commenting is mostly irrelevant (something the site owner and very few other people care about). Bloggers on the other hand are a different story. ("Nameless bloggers and commenters" present totally different issues.) I think there's better reading out there thanks to pseudonymous bloggers. I also really enjoy reading a pseudonymous blog and trying to figure out the identity and real personality of the blogger. Sooner or later we're going to find out and it's fun to see how close you were to figuring it out.

Posted by: Venkat Balasubramani at June 30, 2009 01:52 AM

Dan, I salute your no-wanker comment policy and was also relieved to note that it creates an exception for one of my favorite anonymous bloggers - Charon of the luxuriantly growing and occasionally disappearing mustache.

Posted by: Diane Levin at June 30, 2009 09:03 AM

Dan -- I am not suggesting that "good clients" and "good jurists" are small-minded. Quite the opposite. There are plenty of bad clients and bad jurists out there. (It's obvious you don't practice in Philadelphia by your cavalier suggestion that you would not hesitate to offend a sitting judge in a blog posting. Trust me, in Philly, they hold grudges. Forever.)

Not all of us have your apparent freedom to represent only "good clients" and appear only in front of "good jurists." There are plenty of bad ones out there, of both varieties. My experience makes me rather more cynical than your rallying cry to go ahead and post whatever you want about the law publicly -- clients and courts will understand. We'll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

So, while I applaud your suggestion that we should all comment publicly on legal topics only under our own names, I'll defer to the wise authors of the Federalist Papers, who understood that intelligent discourse can not only take place anonymously, but, indeed, sometimes requires anonymity.

(I'm not suggesting that all anonymous discourse is intelligent, as a review of any random day's postings on Above The Law proves.)

Posted by: Doug Johnson at June 30, 2009 10:29 AM

"The Cost of Anonymity: The desire to hide behind legal and electronic masks can sometimes lead to a whole range of antisocial behaviors, says [David] Brin."


Have you read Brin's Transparent Society? I think you might like the book, Dan.

On this issue, looks like you and Gen Y are in the same corner.

Posted by: Stephanie West Allen at June 30, 2009 11:32 AM

Doug--Our firm's practice is limited to federal courts. I have practiced a lot in the in the ED Pa. (have been before your "difficult" ones) and the 3rd Cir. The framers thought that federal judges were and should be "better"--and I make that leap, too. So I disagree re: those Philly judges.

Read E. Griswold on his summary of what those guys (framers) were thinking about what federal judges are supposed to be like. 90% of federal judges seem to get it. Not small-minded. Not biased against outsiders, a little eccentricity, or a gentle "Sir/Madame--you may be wrong there." Give at least federal judges in America some credit.

The Federalist Papers? The Federalist Papers?

Let's get over ourselves, sir. There you are talking about great men--not back-door power types and passive aggressives with JDs, not enough to do, and a palpable need for increases in their meds.

Very few lawyers are special, my friend.

EVERYONE: "Weenie-Fest for Lawyers" is over. The fun is outweighed by the damage to (a) the credibility of the Net, and (b) our self-respect. Let's grow up. Grow a pair. Hey, it's even exciting: be the first in your virtual community to establish a Wuss-Free Zone.

Posted by: Hull at June 30, 2009 12:07 PM

Right On--this has been the policy at my political blog for a long time---....

Posted by: paul foer at July 1, 2009 01:21 PM

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