Setting The Rules

Recently, after I wrote about getting a cast iron skillet as a gift, I was invited to join the “Cast Iron Cooking” group on Facebook. When I clicked on the link, I was asked three questions: why did I want to join, did I represent that I had read the group’s rules, and did I agree to abide by the rules? I explained that I was interested in learning about using a skillet, read the rules, answered yes to the latter two questions, and was pleased to be allowed to become a member.

I was intrigued by the group’s rules.  What was rule number 1?  “No politics, PERIOD. No drama, PERIOD.”  And to make that point crystal clear:  “ABSOLUTELY no political, “healthy vs unhealthy” posts, medical advice, requests for sympathy or attention, or “cute little games” with the rules. NO POLITICS.”  Rule number 4 is “Rudeness is not tolerated,” and adds:  “If you don’t like it, move on and read something else. Comments about how *you* dislike someone else’s cooked food will be removed. Profanity will get you banned. Arguing with admins is not advised. Puke emojis and GIFs will get deleted.”  Rule number 9 is “No viral videos and funny meme pictures,” and Rule number 10 reads “Accts posting Spam, scam, porn = immediate ban!”  Other rules include things like no selling of items and agreeing that administrators may delete posts.

These rules work pretty well.  The Cast Iron Cooking group is a very pleasant, positive group where you see a lot of pictures of delicious-looking food in cast iron cookery and are motivated to try things like cooking fried chicken in your skillet.  I’d say the administrators who came up with the rules did a very good job.

The group’s rules made me think about the rules that you might impose if you were setting up a group that members of the public might be allowed to join or a website where random people might make comments.  Some people might welcome political chatter and harsh denunciations of this candidate or that, or the posters who voice support for them.  Some might want to see the latest cruel memes.  As for me, I would definitely adopt the Cast Iron Cooking Rules 1, 4, 9, and 10, quoted above.  You can get a bellyful of politics, discourteous comments, and general misbehavior on just about any website that allows comments, or for that matter on the general Facebook page.  It’s nice to have a little oasis where civility reigns.

A Profession In Search Of Itself (Cont.)

I’ve been thinking about the journalism world since writing my earlier piece on what the move away from “objectivity” means for the world of the newsroom.  I think there are some other forces at play that are making the world of daily newspapers very difficult right now — some unavoidable, some self-inflicted.

A Man Reads A NewspaperObviously, the main unavoidable problem is . . . speed.  People expect to get things faster and faster, and we’ve gotten so spoiled by instantaneous speed that we now groan at even a few seconds’ delay as our browser calls up a website.  The daily newspaper simply can’t compete with that — there are too many steps in the process.  By the time the newspaper lands on your doorstep, it will therefore likely be viewed as “old news” already.  It’s been all over the internet for hours — so who wants to sit down and read it again?  And how many people want to sit down and actually read something, as opposed to flipping through content on their cell phones as they head out for a jog or wait for an elevator?

Another unavoidable problem is cost. Newspapers of the past had large payrolls — from the reporters and columnists to the editors to the photographers to ad salesmen to the people who laid out the pages and the guys in the print shop running the presses.  How many labor-centric businesses are thriving these days?  And, as cost-cutting has occurred, newspapers cut into the muscle of daily journalism — the people who made newspapers different from and more reliable than bloggers, like experienced editors who would send stories back for additional fact-checking, or investigative reporters who might take weeks to produce a big, carefully constructed and rigorously tied down story.

But there are self-inflicted errors, too.  I think many newspapers have botched the inevitable move to digital delivery.  If you look at many news websites, they are a riotous mess from a presentation standpoint.  There’s no front page or above-the-fold organization that tells you what the lead story is.  Print newspapers may be old-fashioned, but there was a clear organization at work that was comforting, dependable, and helpful.  If you wanted to feel reasonably informed about what was going on in the world and your town, you read through the front page and the national, state, and local news sections, and then you could turn to the business section, or sports.  You knew that some intelligent person had made some thoughtful decisions about the relative importance of the stories.  Does anyone feel that way about most news websites on-line?  Hard news is mixed up with celebrity news and “sponsored content” that doesn’t look materially different from the “news.”  What do you need to read to truly feel informed?

And that brings me to a final point:  the trivialization of what is supposed to be news.  How many of the stories on a basic news website — say, msn.com — are what we think of as actual news reporting, and how much of what we see featured is content about celebrities being out with their boyfriends or clickbait articles about why a particular sports figure should be seen as a bad guy?  We’ve reached the point where somebody’s context-free cell phone video of a delivery driver who didn’t help an old guy who fell to the ground is featured as prominently — and perhaps more prominently — than an article about a foreign conflict.  And there are opinions, on stories large and small, everywhere you look.

In their quest to keep up with the times and be hip and edgy, newspapers have lost the sober, thoughtful perspective and reputation they once had, and have elevated the inconsequential.  It may appeal to some people, but it doesn’t appeal to people who remember newspapers as they once were.

Increasingly Online

Even before the coronavirus shutdown, our economy was increasingly moving into more of an internet economy, where a lot of consumer commerce was done through online ordering.  With the shutdown, that process has accelerated to warp speed.  We’re to the point now where Amazon, Fed Ex, UPS, and U.S. Postal Service trucks are an everyday sight in our neighborhood, appearing at all hours.  And when you walk down the street you see packages left on a lot of doorsteps.

It’s been a godsend during the shutdown, when the “brick and mortar” stores are for the most part closed by governmental order and people have turned to the internet to supply everything from groceries to clothing to shoes to whatever might help to keep their kids entertained while they are cooped up indoors.  It’s hard to imagine what this period would have been like without the online economy to fill the void when the traditional stores were shuttered.  That’s the reason you see signs in many places, like the one above, thanking the hardy delivery people for playing such a key role in helping people to make it through this extraordinary period.

But . . . what’s going to happen when the reopening occurs?  Are people going to go back to the real-world stores, or will the shift to online shopping be permanent?  That’s a crucial question, because while the online world is convenient, it employs only a fraction of the people who worked in the brick-and-mortar retail world before the shutdown.  If the American shopper goes into full online mode and the local businesses close, we’re going to have a serious, systemic unemployment problem.  And there’s also a local, community element at play.  The online behemoths are usually located far away — and perhaps overseas — the stores in your neighborhood typically are small businesses, owned by people in the community who have an interest in the community.  I saw a sign recently that read something like “Amazon won’t sponsor your kid’s baseball team.”  There’s a lot of truth in that sentiment.

Like everyone else, we’ve done our share of online ordering during this shutdown period, and have appreciated having that option.  But when the shutdown ends, I’m going to focus on trying to buy from the local businesses and brick-and-mortar stores that have been so hard hit by the shutdown, and perhaps even be a little more generous than normal in my spending.  These parts of our community are going to need help to get back on their feet.   

Self-Made Celebrities

Technology and social media have made possible an entirely new kind of celebrity.  Along with movie stars, and sports stars, and rappers, and singers, we’ve now got people who apparently are famous, at least among a segment of the population, for their YouTube videos or some other kind of social media presence.

africa-broadband-it-internet-technologyI’ve come to realize that there is an entirely unknown field of “personalities” when I’ve seen them as the subject of articles on the msn.com website, or the news stories that now pop up when I access the Google website on my phone.  One recent example was an article about the untimely death of somebody I’d never even heard of — a woman named Emily Hartridge, who was described as a popular YouTube personality for her video posts about herself and relationships.  And given the size of the internet and the different channels for social media communication, for every Emily Hartridge there are probably hundreds or thousands of other people who have become famous to their specific cadre of followers.

It’s an example of the how modern communications technology is more democratic and a lot more diverse.  You don’t necessarily need to be found by an agent or producer or record company executive to become famous these days.  Anyone who has a cellphone and a computer and something to say or something to show can take a shot at posting self-made videos and hope to carve out a niche for themselves and find an audience.  These days, people can become self-made celebrities.

It’s a step forward in some ways, but of course there are hazards, too.  How many videos out there espouse political views that contribute to the splintering of society?  How would the Hitlers of the past have used social media to disseminate their hateful ideologies?  And how many people, in their lust for self-made celebrityhood and “likes,” are tempted to film themselves doing dangerous things in hopes of attracting more followers and becoming one of those new personalities?  Just this week, a Chinese “vlogger” died while livestreaming himself drinking and eating poisonous geckos, centipedes, and mealworms in hopes of attracting new followers.  It’s hard to believe that any rational person could be so desperate and so reckless — but a personal tool as powerful as the internet and social media is bound to bring out the crazies, too.

3 Reasons Why Clickbait Headlines Use Numbers

You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.

If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers.  As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.”  Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.

Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks.  Why?

The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers.  Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine.  Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion.  More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers.  Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.

In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that.  People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find.  Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait.  Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly.  The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.

 

Stringing Out The Joy

In some ways, the modern world is a better place than it used to be; in other ways, not so much.

In one way, though, the improvement is indisputable:  if you’re a sports fan wanting to relive a great success by one of your teams, modern technology allows you to string out the joy much, much longer than used to be possible.

radio_mikeandmike_04I watched the Cavs’ win the NBA title on Sunday.  (I can still barely believe it, by the way.)  Since then I’ve been reading every internet article I can find about the game, even scrolling through the often ignorant and foolish comments.  Right now, I’m listening to a rebroadcast of the Mike & Mike radio show from Monday morning, to get that duo’s fresh take on the Cavs’ big win and LeBron’s personal triumph.  And I’ve got no doubt that, if I wanted to, I could easily find enough new broadcasts, webcasts, podcasts, highlight packages, articles, columns, blog posts, YouTube snippets, and other “content” about the Cavs’ win to fill up weeks of leisure time.

This is a big change from the old days, before the internet, before ESPN, before the NBA channel, and before every schmoe with a computer could write whatever he wanted.  In those days, you’d wait for your Sports Illustrated to hit the mailbox and eagerly read the articles and look at the great photos — but that was it.  Your team won, you were happy, but then you just had to move on, because there was no alternative.

Now, you can revel in your triumph, immerse yourself in it, wallow in it.  It’s a bit self-centered and selfish, perhaps . . . but boy, when you’ve waited 52 years for that big win, it’s a great thing, indeed.

Lab Rats

Forbes has reported that Facebook “conducted secret tests to determine the magnitude of its Android users’ Facebook addiction.”  In the tests, which apparently occurred several years ago, users of the Facebook app for Android were subject to intentional crashes of the app. without being informed of the tests.

Why would Facebook want to provoke crashes that would frustrate users who were trying to wish a Facebook friend happy birthday or post their latest selfie?  Purportedly, to test the “resilience” of Facebook users.  If your app suddenly crashed, would you just say the hell with Facebook, or would you try to access Facebook through an internet browser instead, or through a different app?

paralyzed-ratsWhen you think about it, intentional crashes aren’t really testing “resilience” — they’re testing obsession and addiction.  After a crash, a rational person would avoid Facebook, for a while at least, reasoning that time was needed for anonymous techno-geeks at some far off location to address the cause of the crash and fix it.  Only somebody desperate for an immediate Facebook fix would spend time searching to get to Facebook via alternative means, because nothing time sensitive ever really happens on Facebook.  You can always send your friend an email expressing birthday wishes, or save that choice Throwback Thursday photo until next week.

But the point, of course, isn’t whether it’s resilience or obsession that is being tested — it’s the fact that Facebook is intentionally frustrating its users at all.  It sounds like the kind of experiment some evil scientist with a futuristic base on a remote island might use on hapless prisoners.  After all, why would you knowingly thwart the efforts of somebody who is trying to access your website?  Facebook no doubt would shrug and say the tests provided needed information — but really, it did the tests because it could . . . and it was confident that Facebook fans would keep coming back.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this:  Facebook has done similar kinds of tests before, and other companies do, too.  On the internet, we’re all lab rats.  Our movements are tracked constantly, but instead of scientists in white coats checking when we take a sip from the water dropper or stop running on the wheel or are responding to the electrodes placed on our hind quarters, data is compiled about which websites we visit, how long we stay there, what we click on, and whether we’re showing an interest in one product or another so that we can be bombarded with pop-up ads for that product forever.

Time for another spin on the wheel!

Further Vetting The Vetting

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, officials are looking at whether they may have missed clues that could have predicted the murderous death spree of Syed Rizwa Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.  And it appears that some blazing red flags were, in fact, not seen, and that the immigrant screening process employed by the United States is not, in fact, as foolproof as some advocates have represented.

The biggest missed clues were social media posts.  As the New York Times recently reported, Tashfeen Malik had talked openly on social media posts about her support for violent jihad and her interest in being part of it.  However, the agencies charged with deciding whether she should be permitted to enter the United States never saw those posts because “immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.”

tashfeen-malik-l-and-syed-farook-are-pictured-passing-through-chicagos-ohare-international-airport-in-this-july-27-2014-handout-photo-obtained-by-reuters-december-8-2015-reutersus-customs-and-border-pStrange, isn’t it, that in our modern, internet-obsessed age, where many people share their innermost thoughts and views on-line, that social media posts of an applicant for entry to the U.S. aren’t reviewed as a matter of course to search for violent, pro-terrorist, or anti-American sentiments?  Wouldn’t you think that unprompted social media posts are much more likely to yield insights into a would-be immigrant’s true feelings than the answers given at a stilted, formal interview with a consular official?  And it’s not as if the jihadists are shy about sharing their views on social media — after all, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups actively use the internet as a recruiting mechanism and are happy to post videos of beheadings and other bloody activities as part of their recruitment campaigns.

What’s most troubling about the New York Times article linked above is the “debate” within the government about whether it is “even appropriate” to look at social media in the visa application process.  The concluding paragraph of the Times article, apparently seeking to explain the reluctance to review social media, states:  “Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”

Such justifications make no sense to me.  Sure, social media posts endorsing violence might not be “definitive evidence” (whatever that means) that the writer will become a mass-murdering terrorist, but don’t we want to even check on whether someone seeking entry to our country has voiced such sentiments, and if so build that undoubtedly relevant information into our decision-making process — and maybe ask a question or two about such statements in that stilted interview?   Why take a head-in-the-sand approach to available information.

And why the curious concern about whether it is “appropriate” to look at social media postings?  After all, social media posts are public statements, available to the world.  Companies routinely review social media postings as part of the job application process, and parents counsel their children to consider how that Facebook picture of their embarrassing behavior at a boozy party might be perceived by a prospective employer.  Yet the delicate sensibilities within our government are worried that it might not be “appropriate” to look at whether the likes of Tashfeen Malik have expressed violent, anti-American views before they decide to let them enter the country?

It’s bad enough that Farook and Malik were motivated to gun down innocents in San Bernardino in furtherance of their own, twisted beliefs.  It would be inexcusable if the government did not learn from the process by which Malik gained entry and use those lessons to improve our immigration protocols and enhance the information-gathering process.  Establishing a mechanism for reviewing public social media posts of visa applicants would be a good place to start.

Clickbait

It’s obvious that ad revenue on some free websites is tied to “clicks” — how many times people tap their mouse to access a story.  It’s one way for the website to account for its traffic and provide data to advertisers who want to know how many people are seeing their banners and pop-up ads.  Not surprisingly, many websites are set up to maximize clicks.  That’s why you often need to click “next page” to read an entire article, for example.

The most irritating aspect of the click-counting emphasis, however, are the articles that clearly are “clickbait.”  You’ve seen them featured on the websites you visit, cluttering things up like unsightly litter on the side of a highway:  where are members of the cast of an old TV show now, what “jaw-dropping” dresses got worn to a recent awards show, which celebrities have killed a person (number 8 will shock you!), what “weird trick” will allow you to immediately lose 20 pounds or secure your retirement, and on and on.  You’ve probably gotten to the point that you don’t even notice them anymore on the websites you visit.

What’s discouraging about the “clickbait” phenomenon, however, is that even more high-end internet content providers seem to be unable to resist publishing their own form of clickbait.  Those are articles that clearly are designed to stoke controversy and provoke criticism, in hopes that the articles will be linked and discussed on other websites.  They’ll gladly accept harsh bashings if a few more clicks come their way.

Even as august a publication as the New York Times isn’t immune from the lure of clickbait.  Recently the Times published an article called “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man” that can only be viewed as high-end clickbait.  It’s a silly piece that lists grossly implausible attributes of “modern men” — such as that they not only buy shoes for their wives, but will know their wife’s shoe size and which women’s shoe brands run large or small — and it’s gotten creamed all over the internet.  But I’m guessing that it’s been one of the biggest click-producers that the Times has published recently, and that will make the Times, and its advertisers, happy.  (I’m not going to link to it because the last thing I want to do is reward the publication of any more clickbait.)

It’s sad, really, to see publications like the Times stoop to the level of clickbait.  It makes me wonder what kind of long-term impact the internet is going to have on the quality of journalism in America.

Solving Family Mysteries, One Keystroke At A Time

It’s a legendary family story.  When Grandma and Grandpa Neal traveled to Ireland in the ’70s, they decided to take a carriage ride.  As the grizzled Irish driver was struggling to help my grandmother — a portly woman — into the carriage, he muttered: “You’re beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer!”

Grandma, who had a wonderful sense of humor, thought it was one of the funniest comments ever — so of course we grandkids did, too.  But the driver’s jibe had an air of mystery and an almost lyrical quality that stuck with me.  A heifer was a cow, or course, but what, precisely, was a Mullingar heifer?

In those days, it would have taken forever to find out.  I suppose I could have gone to the reference section of the library, spoken to a severe-looking woman who probably would have been suspicious of my purported interest in Irish cattle, and with her assistance possibly located a massive book about bovine breeds that was available only in the library of the Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine.  It was too much work to satisfy a bit of idle curiosity, obviously, so I didn’t even try.

But then the internet was invented!  (Thanks, Al Gore!)  So when I was thinking with a chuckle of the Irishman’s comment the other day, I entered “Mullingar heifer” into the little box on Google, and lo and behold, I not only found pictures of the mysterious creature, one of which I’ve now posted here, but also learned that “beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer” is a traditional Irish colloquialism typically used in connection with ladies with stout legs.  The latter discovery was a bit of a letdown, because for years I had been giving the Irish driver credit for coming up with a deft, original witticism.

Now that I’ve solved that decades-old mystery, it’s time to find the true origins of Mom’s exhortation to “put a little elbow grease into it!”

Weighing The Different TV And Internet Options

We’ll be moving into our new house in a few weeks, and one of the key impending decisions for us is:  what to do about TV and internet coverage?

At our old house we went with cable-based service provided by Time Warner.  Our TV and internet coverage was generally reliable, but it was expensive and we really grew to dislike — actually, “hate” is more accurate — Time Warner and its employees’ collective attitude about customer service.  They seemed to revel in making us jump through stupid hoops for no apparent reason.  We won’t go back to TW because we know we’ll just end up infuriated.  WOW is the other cable provider in Columbus, but its on-line reviews seem extremely mixed — it’s great or it’s awful, with not much in between.

IMG_4686The second option is a satellite service.  Our new house already has a dish on the roof.  I think it for DirecTV, but I haven’t paid attention because I don’t like the idea of a dish on my roof.  Now I think it needs to be considered as an alternative.  However, satellite services seem to only provide TV and “partner” with another company to offer internet — which just means, apparently, that we’ll have to deal with two providers rather than one.

A third option is AT&T U-Verse “internet TV,” which would provide one-stop internet and TV.  The house we’re staying in now has it and we haven’t had any service problems, but the TV offerings are limited and don’t include some of the “basic cable” channels that we’ve come to like, such as the Big Ten Network.  Of course, that may just be a matter of getting a different package.  The more high-end TV channels, too, aren’t simple to get to and involve juggling multiple remotes.

And the final option is:  only internet service and no TV.  Since we’ve been at this house, I’ve gone for days without watching any TV.  We’ve got friends who’ve forsaken TV and seem perfectly content.  Maybe that’s an option — but I think we’d regret it when the next seasons of Game of Thrones and The Leftovers start and I want to watch a football game.

We want to make an informed decision in selecting among a confusing array of choices.  I’d be very interested in any thoughts on these options, and particularly in personal experiences with WOW, DirecTV or Dish, and AT&T U-Verse.

How Common Is Plagiarism?

On Friday the U.S. Army War College formally revoked the master’s degree it had conferred upon Senator John Walsh, a Democrat from Montana.  The college found that Walsh had plagiarized significant portions of the research paper that he was required to complete as a prerequisite to graduation.

A review board at the college found that Walsh’s plagiarism was “egregious,” that the paper was “primarily composed of verbatim liftings from other sources,” and that the plagiarism was “intentional.”  According to news reports, Walsh’s office said he disagreed with the report’s findings but accepted the review board’s decision; he also apologized to the people of Montana.  Walsh, who was appointed to the Senate seat, dropped out of the race for election to a full term after the New York Times reported the plagiarism charges.

How common is plagiarism — the act of borrowing someone else’s work or ideas without attribution?  No one really knows.  Some years ago the Los Angeles Times reported that 30 percent of college term papers were plagiarized.  Another piece says that many college students engage in a practice called “patchwriting,” where they don’t simply engage in verbatim copying of prior work but instead try to paraphrase and rearrange.  In either case, of course, the writer isn’t doing their own original thinking.

The internet has made plagiarism both easier and more difficult.  Easier, because there is so much content that can be borrowed with a few clicks of a mouse; harder, because there are now software programs and services that can scan phrases and compare them to see whether matches are found in the mass of words floating somewhere in the cloud.  It’s hard work, but if teachers care enough, they can ferret out plagiarized work.

Of course, the means of accomplishing plagiarism doesn’t explain why people are motivated to plagiarize in the first place.  Perhaps the best indication of the commonness of plagiarism is the fact that you can find multiple articles addressing the most common excuses students offer for their plagiarism.  Sad, isn’t it?

A Response To Those Angry, Ignorant, Anonymous Comments

Our college friend and fellow Lantern alum Jim McKeever writes for an interesting and lively blog called Irish Investigations.  Yesterday he wrote a post about anonymous internet comments that is worth considering.

The context of Jim’s piece is straightforward.  Among his other positive qualities, Jim is a runner and an active participant in charitable causes.  In his community there is an Independence Day 10-mile run.  Two 12-year-old twin boys with muscular dystrophy wanted to participate in the race by being pushed in adapted “running strollers” by willing runners.  Amazingly, the race organizers initially denied the boys permission to participate, but news coverage and a social media firestorm caused them to reconsider.  The event occurred, the boys participated, and they were cheered along the race route.

But the on-line news stories about the incident elicited some of the angry, ignorant comments that any regular reader of on-line content has seen all too often, all made by people using pseudonyms.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t feel good about letting disabled boys participate in a community event, but the anonymous comments showed that, pathetically, some sad, mean-spirited people did.  Jim’s piece reacts to their comments, but also raises the larger issue of whether websites should permit anonymous postings in the first place.  He thinks that people who post anonymous comments are cowards and websites shouldn’t allow them to spew their venom, secure behind the protective veil of their fake on-line names.

I get Jim’s point, but I have a different take on the issue.  I think there is value in allowing pseudonymous comments precisely because it allows people to expose their innermost thoughts.  Usually those thoughts aren’t offensive, and the posters just want to avoid any concern that they might get blowback or provoke a nut to begin stalking them — after all, the internet can be a scary place.  But even if the thoughts are angry or stupid, like the comments Jim describes, I think it’s worth seeing them precisely because it allows them to be exposed as ignorant and idiotic.  Although Jim didn’t mention this in his piece, I hope that good people like Jim responded to every one of those ignorant posts and, maybe, helped to convince the anonymous posters that their views are terribly out of line.

Technology allows so many people to live their lives in a cocoon, without much meaningful interaction with the world.  The haters at their computer keyboards may believe that their hateful views are widely shared.  When they surface from their dens to make ignorant anonymous posts, we all have the opportunity to disabuse them of that notion.

In Search of Internet Anonymity

Some of the most popular new smartphone apps offer users the prospect of anonymity. With names like Secret, Whisper, Confide, and Yik Yak, they employ different methods to allow people to post items, and responded to other posted items, without attribution.

The developers of these apps say that anonymity is a kind of pressure-release valve: people have carefully crafted their on-line personas on social media sites, and anonymity lets them really expose their true natures without risk of blowback. (Wait a minute! Are they saying that what people post on Facebook isn’t a true window to their very souls?) So, the apps supposedly allow people to be more “honest.” Of course, there are dangers — such as bullying and defamation — with any social media outlet that allows posters and commenters to hide their identities, so the app designers have to develop techniques to detect or restrain malicious behavior.

Why is the promise of anonymity attractive? It’s a question almost as old as the human species. The classic form of anonymous comment is graffiti, and that dates back thousands of years. Obviously, there’s something about making public statements, without significant fear of retribution, that some people find attractive. Of course, often those anonymous public statements are cruel and repulsive, and frequently the veil of anonymity produces statements that are consciously designed to inflame. Are the people who use these anonymity apps really being more honest, or just saying things that they know will be provocative?

The story linked above mentions the early days of the internet, when pseudonymous postings were commonplace. Some people apparently enjoyed those early days, but I wasn’t one of them. My first few ventures onto the internet, using a dial-up modem and ridiculously slow connections, suggested that the world was filled with mean-spirited people who would glibly say the most awful things imaginable. It took a while before I found websites where I was comfortable.

I think the internet’s move to attribution — like its move to high-speed connections — has been a definite improvement, and I’m not interested in going back. I won’t be looking to add one of the anonymity apps to my iPhone.

When The Internet Is Fun Again

-6I recognize there are downsides to the internet. It can be an angry place, where anonymous people hurl their rage like weapons. It’s filled with porn, and scams, and falsities, and predators looking to inflict harm on the unwary.

There is so much about the internet that is bad that we forget, sometimes, that the internet can be fun, too. I remembered that today, when I received a comment on our blog from a fellow named Tim. He’d read some of our blog posts about Grandpa Neal, and he wanted to reach out and connect. You see, he’s related to one of Grandpa’s lifelong friends, and he has some pictures of Grandpa with that friend that he wanted to share.

This kind of contact with an unknown person is exactly the kind of thing that makes the internet so much fun — and, sometimes, so treacherous. I responded to Tim, we exchanged emails, and he has sent me some great old photos and news articles. This picture of the Firestone Bank 1923 basketball squad, which apparently won the Akron bank league competition, is a classic that made me smile. I’ve never seen it before. That’s a ridiculously youthful Grandpa Neal holding the ball, and Tim’s grandfather standing above Grandpa’s left shoulder.

Were it not for the internet, I never would have communicated with Tim or seen this photo. For all of its drawbacks, the internet remains an extraordinary communications tool. Thanks, Tim, for sharing — and thanks to the internet for making it all possible.