Web Anonymity And The Future of Reputation

The anonymous Web is like Freud’s id – a seething mass of pure impulse beneath a civil surface, in constant need of tamping down. While I believe wholeheartedly in free speech, it’s pretty clear that our Constitution’s framers didn’t envision ChatRoulette… or even the anonymous online comments section of the average newspaper. The balance between privacy and accountability is a delicate one.

But it may be tipping. Several news organizations, including The New York Times, are backing away from anonymity in online comments. Recently The Washington Post said it will not only require commenters to register, but give greater weight to those who actually post under their own names. The Huffington Post has said it will review and revise its policy to limit those who “hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments.”

Anonymous speech may also have been set back by the The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s outing last week of an unidentified poster who made defamatory comments on its site. It turned out the commenter’s email address was that of a local judge who’s been the target of scrutiny by the paper.  (The judge denies posting the comments, although her 23-year-old daughter has owned up to making some of them.) But, it’s no wonder that free-speech-loving Netizens are mourning the good old days of  i-nonymity.

Can we handle the truth?

But, a new development may cloud the move towards transparency. A freshly unveiled reputation site has the PR community buzzing. Though still in beta, Unvarnished aims to be a resource of community-contributed professional reviews of people. Theoretically, anyone can weigh in on the competence, workstyle, or character of a peer, boss, subordinate, vendor, or work colleague, without being identified.

Users must register through Facebook Connect, and comments are subject to moderation, but they are fully anonymous. Think LinkedIn without the anodyne recommendations that CNET’s Molly Wood calls “tongue baths.” And without the accountability. Ouch.

Reputation isn’t dead, contrary to some opinions, but it sure is changing. Early reviews indicate that Unvarnished plans sufficient checks and balances, along with reasonable moderation of posts, to avoid a bloodbath. The site aims to be an aggregation of anonymous, yet credible, comments, which, in its way, is a far greater reputational challenge than a Gawker-like snark-fest.

As in the real world, Web comments that are vile, hateful, or unreasonable are dismissed, or at least taken with a bucket of salt. But if both anonymity and credibility are preserved, what you don’t know just might hurt you, and your online reputation. And, today, is there any other kind?