Anonymous Authoring of Topic Maps?

Arthur D. Santana documents in Virtuous or Vitriolic: The effect of anonymity on civility in online newspaper reader comment boards that anonymity have given online discussion boards their chief characteristic, “rampant incivility.”


In an effort to encourage community dialogue while also building reader loyalty, online newspapers have offered a way for readers to become engaged in the news process, most popularly with online reader comment boards. It is here that readers post their opinion following an online news story, and however much community interaction taking place therein, one thing appears evident: sometimes the comments are civil; sometimes they are not. Indeed, one of the chief defining characteristics of these boards has become the rampant incivility—a dilemma many newspapers have struggled with as they seek to strengthen the value of the online dialogue. Many journalists and industry observers have pointed to a seemingly straightforward reason for the offensive comments: anonymity. Despite the claim, however, there is a striking dearth of empirical evidence in the academic literature of the effect that anonymity has on commenters’ behavior. This research offers an examination of user comments of newspapers that allow anonymity (N=450) and the user comments of newspapers that do not (N=450) and compares the level of civility in both. In each group, comments follow news stories on immigration, a topic prevalent in the news in recent years and which is especially controversial and prone to debate. Results of this quantitative content analysis, useful for journalism practitioners and scholars, provide empirical evidence of the effect that anonymity has on the civility of user comments.

I haven’t surveyed the academic literature specific to online newspaper forums but it is a common experience that shouting from a crowd is one thing. Standing separate and apart as an individual is quite another.

There is a long history of semi-anonymous flame wars conducted in forums and email lists, so the author’s conclusions come as no surprise.

Despite being “old news,” I do think the article raises the question of whether you want to allow anonymous authoring in an shared topic map environment?

Assuming that authors cannot specify merges that damage the ability of the map to function, would you allow anonymous authoring in a shared topic map?

I say “shared” topic map rather than “online” because topic map environments exist separate from any public facing network or even any network at all but what’s critical here is with multiple authors, should any of them be able to be anonymous?

I have heard it argued that some analysts, I won’t say what discipline, want to be able to float their ideas anonymously but then also get credit should they be proven to be correct. Anonymity but also tracking at the author’s behest.

If required to build such a system I would, but I would not encourage it.

In part because of the civility issue but also because people should own their ideas, suggestions, statements, etc., and to take responsibility for them.

Think of it this way, segregation wasn’t ended by people posting anonymous comments to newspaper forums. Segregation was ended by people of different races and religions owning their words in opposition to segregation, to the point of discrimination, harassment, physical injury and even death.

If you are not that brave, why would anyone want to listen to you?

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