Post Disgrace - Death of Anonymity

Petty and infantile, that's how I'd sum up the handling of a recent situation on the website (the website for the St. Louis Post Dispatch).

Kurt Greenbaum, after getting an anonymous commenter to resign his job [Ars Technica] when he looked up the commenter's IP address and ratted out the commenter to the school for which he worked, posted a little self-congratulatory post on the Post's website, as well as his personal blog.

Excerpt from the post:

I heard from the school’s headmaster. The school’s IT director took a shine to the challenge. Long story short: Using the time-frame of the comments, our website location and the IP addresses in the WordPress e-mail, he tracked it back to a specific computer. The headmaster confronted the employee, who resigned on the spot.

I'm not sure if Kurt understands the concept of anonymous posting and spam comments... on this little thing called the 'Internet,' people spam blogs and such with annoying, crass, rude, insensitive, and pointless drivel almost constantly. Even if you require people to be registered users / subscribers, you will get spam. You learn to deal with it. I could care less about the identity of anonymous commenters—and they should know they can always be tracked, to a certain extent—but the idea of selectively calling out certain commenters detracts from the idea of an 'open forum.' I've seen much more insulting and crass comments on the Post's website, so I don't know what got Mr. Greenbaum's feathers in such a kerfuffle.

You'd think the Post, a sanctuary for Catholic-bashing comments and radical vulgarity (in my experience), would either grin and bear the vulgar comment left by an anonymous commenter on the earlier post, or at most delete the comment and move on. Such should be the policy of a large news organization that leaves all their postings open to droves of anonymous commenters (a bad idea anyways, in my book).

Ah well. At least it provides the Internet with a little entertainment, and some good lessons for how not to handle a similar situation. Here's a follow up post by Kurt on his personal blog - excerpt below:

Have I set some sort of precedent for STLtoday? We don’t routinely, and would not routinely take the steps I took in this case. For particularly bad cases of abusing our guidelines with vulgarity and obscenity, we would not rule it out.

So he acted on a whim? So it seems. Such is the way on the web, quite often.

Did I overreact? Maybe I did. I am constantly frustrated by the difficulty of dealing with this kind of language. And in this case, I was motivated by three things.

I like the 'maybe' here - you did. Sorry, them's the brakes. Being constantly frustrated is par for the course if you're dealing with social interaction on the web. You have to take it in stride, even when you're at the brink.

First, this came from a school. I didn’t know if it came from an employee, a guest or a student. But I viewed it as a “teachable moment” and a chance, perhaps, to nip something in the bud, to engage the community to help me. I didn’t anticipate that the reader would resign. 

I'd like to know how this would help 'engage the community.'

Second, the comment was posted, deleted and intentionally posted a second time by the same person. Too much time had elapsed between posts for it to be a mistake or an accident. The reader was determined to post it.

It's called spam. Deal with it :-) [Note: I get maybe 5-10 spam comments on the few sites I run on a daily basis... often three or more are posted within minutes of each other, and actually look like legitimate comments. My policy is, delete first, ask never. Basically, delete the comment and move on.

Third, it was easy. As I said, I didn’t have to dig for the school’s information. It was readily available on the e-mail alert. Had it not been there, I may have deleted the comment and moved on.

"It was easy" is always—always—a poor justification for action.

Hopefully we've all learned a lesson from this incident. People, spam bots, etc. will spam any way they can - whether it be to advertise a product, to ruffle feathers, etc. This is especially the case when you leave your posts open to anonymous commenters. Just ignore them, and be on your way. The Internet will thank you.


Feeding trolls only makes them stronger. Sadly I think Mr. Greenbaum did nothing but embarrass himself amongst the blog and journalism community.

It'll be interesting to see what effect this has on the level and quality of comments on that site going forward. Will they scare off the troublemakers or embolden them? And will serious contributors think twice before leaving a message?

It seems the title of this post is quite appropriate... the Post-Dispatch seems to have completely disabled anonymous commenting on their website. Good for them!