Monday, May 05, 2008

Who watches the Watchmen?

One of my long-term goals has always been to write this blog openly, without the beautiful anonymity of the Internet. I understand immediately that the 7 or 8 people that read this blog know who I am anyway, but humor me--isn't humoring the author what all blogs are about, anyway?--for a moment.

I think we can all agree that anonymity is both the best and worst thing about the Internet. Certainly, the ability to post on message boards and make comments without knowing who's talking has allowed innumerable people to voice their opinions who might not otherwise.

However, this has opened the floodgates to an unfathomable amount of idiocy, best encapsulated by this Penny Arcade comic about the "Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory": Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.

Perceived intelligence of the site doesn't matter; popularity breeds stupidity, regardless of content. The more popular and highly trafficked the site, the grander the scope of idiocy you'll see. Check the comments after any article on the normally intelligent New York Times and you'll see that the masses in the comments are just as ignorant (and willing to wax poetic about the ignorance of others) as, say, YouTube. Last month, a brave writer on Slate scanned the 60,000+ comments on a YouTube video of a laughing baby and correctly noted that "In our time, Internet commenting has become its own special form of social idiocy" and that letting the YouTubers at a cute video of a child was akin to "dipping a bunny into acid."

On top of bringing countless types of abrasive idiocy to light, even well-meaning messages without a name attached are, in my opinion, virtually worthless.

I speak from bitter experience here. My junior year in high school, myself and a few close friends had gotten fed up with the direction that (start laughing...) our marching band ( was headed. I don't remember the nerdy, socially awkward details at all, but what's important at the moment is that we were hopping mad and wanted our leadership to make some changes.

So, god damnit, we wrote a long, well-reasoned letter to our band directors that laid out our grievances and offered some reasonable resolutions.

We were, however, big pussies and didn't want to get in trouble if our letter was poorly received. So we didn't put our names on it and dropped it in the suggestion box when no one was looking.

The next day between class and our daily loser meeting band practice, we heard the distinct sound of laughter coming from the directors' office. The ruckus was, predictably, over our letter. They were laughing outright at our reasonable suggestions! How dare they?! Amidst the chuckles, I heard our percussion teacher say, "they make some good points, but because there's no name on this thing, I just can't take it seriously."

That stuck with me: your words are infinitely more valuable in the long run if you're willing to stand by them.

In addition, anonymity can be infuriating to whoever reads your message. Take this note that I found on top of my office computer this morning:

If you can't read it, it says:
Laptops must be stored in a locked cabinet outside office hours.
Don't let audit catch you like this.

While it's surely well-meaning and trying to keep me out of trouble with all-powerful security folks, without a name or anything else attached, it just seems kind of dickish, no? That's certainly how I read it at first. Hell, entire Web sites exist to display the passive-aggressive dickery that comes naturally with anonymous notes. Even if I wanted to thank whoever wrote it (which I did after I calmed down a bit), I don't know who to talk to.

So it's been with some trepidation that I have been blogging for years without putting my name beside it.

I was planning on changing that after getting my master's last December. As I've started moving into the information architecture and web design fields, I've wanted to write about a number of relevant topics; however, I didn't want to put it out there anonymously. What if it's good stuff? There's a pretty robust community of professionals that blog out there, my name is as Google-able as could be, and good content could be just one more networking opportunity. What if a kick-ass blog post with some solid ideas gets me a job some day?

I figured that a blog could complement my portfolio (which definitely has my name all over it) nicely. I even coded the whole damn thing in Wordpress and was ready to go live.

Plus, it would be nice to be able to publicly host my own content and, accordingly, have total control over it.

Then this happened: a CNN producer, Chez Pazienza, got fired for blogging, even though he did so anonymously and never mentioned his employer.

Also, this happened: Mike Tunison, aka "Christmas Ape" of Kissing Suzy Kolber and Deadspin got fired from the Washington Post shortly after coming out of the blogging closet. Why did he cast off the beautiful cloak of anonymity? For full disclosure! And, ironically, the Post, a journalistic enterprise, had a problem with that.

Now, granted, Tunison wrote howlingly funny and wildly inappropriate posts about Philip Rivers and Hines Ward, but he never claimed to be writing for anyone else other than himself and his readers. He certainly wasn't representing the Post or his day job as a local beat reporter.

For his part, Chez also wrote howlingly funny and wildly inappropriate (and harshly opinionated) posts about any number of topics, including the current state of the news media. If you were to scan his posts, he would probably come off as a total ass.

But what an eloquent ass! Check out some of his greatest hits:

That's some great stuff. It's a shame that CNN and the Post chose to dismiss such pure talent over what they did in their spare time. Sure, they have every legal right to fire whomever they please. And Chez and Tunison have every right to write about whatever they want on their personal sites, anonymous or no. I just don't think blogging is sufficient reason to lose your job, especially when you don't mention said day job in your posts. Especially when they're doing something (writing) that their choice of day job shows they obviously love. It's like getting fired for enjoying cooking in your spare time when your day job is a line cook.

"But they're so outlandish and opinionated! Surely that must affect their day jobs!" Bullshit. Most of us can and do check our private lives at the door when we put on our day job hats. And who says they can't coexist? I thought Forbes was wise to embrace and promote one of their staff writers after he was publicly outed as blogger Fake Steve Jobs.

And it's not for fame or money, either. Blogging isn't exactly a claim to fame or riches. Let's look at a popular blog for example. is arguably the biggest and most influential sports blog out there. On Technorati's admittedly loose definition and ranking of blogs, it's the #61 top blog, and the most popular sports blog on the Internet (if you're curious that places it far below Gawker, Daily Kos, Drudge Report, and the ridiculously high-ranked; and just ahead of Freakonomics.). According to founder Will Leitch, on a good month Deadspin gets about 2 million page views. To compare, Sports Illustrated's site gets that in about a day. in probably half a day or less. It's just not that big, even if it's top dog among blogs. Here's a fun exercise: ask your parents if they've heard of blogging legends Dooce, Tucker Max, or Big Daddy Drew. Nope? Thought so. Accordingly, the money isn't going to be great. Have you checked out the pay rates on Internet ads? A penny for every 10,000 click-throughs? I can't lose!

Of course, folks have been getting fired for blogging as long as there have been blogs. (See: Dooce)

Still, it's a shame that a blog that doesn't mention your employer can be grounds for getting fired.

Given this, I'm staying in the shadows until I'm fully working for myself. Not that it matters, since probably a dozen people read this and they're almost all my real-life friends. And I've been sloppy: if you dig enough, it's not impossible to link my real name to this blog. I'm Facebook buddies with my boss at work. I'm pretty much working on borrowed time here.

But I might as well not actively make it any easier.

So if anyone who doesn't know me in real life wants to know, my name might be Lee, my full name is very Google-friendly, and I work for major multinational firm Compuglobalhypermeganet. See you on the Internets.


cher cher said...

I like your thoughts on this.

I try really hard to avoid talking about work on the blog, but sometimes it's hard because 1) it's pretty much my life and 2) sometimes work events seem totally blogable. Like today, when I spent about a half hour trying to re-program the voicemail on my phone, and another co-worker and I were laughing so hard we almost pissed ourselves. Such an unfunny story out of context, but too worky to blog.

So, Lee, if that is your real name, I wish you luck in your quest to remain an anonymous blogger.

Katie Mo said...

I read about the laughing baby comments on Slate -- it's totally true. I hate with the heat of a thousand suns those people who just write "FIRST!!" as if that was an actual comment.

Try checking out some of the mensa-level comments on Yahoo Answers -- an entire portion of the Yahoo site dedicated to nothing but making stupid comments!! Very entertaining, but makes me worry about the people in this world :)