Dorothy Crenshaw April 21, 2010 | 07:29:01

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?

8 thoughts on “Web Anonymity And The Future of Reputation

  1. Nice post Dorothy. I think you’ve nailed the issue in your last paragraph.
    I don’t entirely agree with your statement that “Web comments that are vile, hateful, or unreasonable are dismissed, or at least taken with a bucket of salt,” but I do agree that the more insidious and damaging attacks are the ones that come with an air of credibility.
    If someone goes on a website like Unvarnished (or Yelp if we’re talking about small businesses) and makes a wild accusation like you’re being investigated by the police for embezzlement, that’s something that, in theory, can be disproven.
    However, if someone goes online to say that you’re difficult to work with, you have no respect for your colleagues, you kiss up to the boss, and, oh yeah, you have bad personal hygiene, what are you supposed to do? By and large, those are subjective opinions, and, though they may have been left maliciously, if a recruiter sees them they’re not going to want to hire you.
    That’s why at ReputationDefender we focus on giving customers proactive online reputation management solutions. If you have a strong digital identity in place, you will be more prepared to deal with an anonymous attack when it happens.

    1. Thanks, I was struggling to articulate some of the subtleties while staying relatively brief. The measures that seem to have been taken do give it that kind of credibility, or at least the potential for it. (Esp. if you read ITWorld’s account of how his fake profiles and off-the-wall comments were moderated.) But, clearly, well-articulated opinions, whether false or inflammatory, or shared by many, will find a place here, like a 360 degree performance review from any chapter of your work life!

  2. It’s so common now for published material to be solely intended to sell something or to advance the cause of the writer in one way or another. It was refreshing to read something that is actually intended to benefit the reader, as this article was. Great work! Online Reputation

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