Making choices about Anonymity

September 23, 2009 at 1:22 pm Leave a comment

21 new citizen reporters are featured on The Rapidian promo cards

21 new citizen reporters are featured on The Rapidian promo cards

It’s been one week since the launch of the new “hyper-local” citizen journalism project here in Grand Rapids, MI. Yesterday I submitted my 2nd op-ed piece addressing conversations about our choice to require identity disclosure for folks posting to the site. It’s a very interesting discussion, and I thought it might be helpful to repost it here, too. So…from The Rapidian:

When working with community volunteers to design The Rapidian, we faced some very interesting questions and choices. What should The Rapidian look like? What should it encourage? What should we seek to avoid?

Out of many lengthy discussions arose seven key values for the project: Inclusiveness; Civility; Ethical Reporting; Original Works/Proper Attribution; Open Identity; Cooperative Distribution; and Local Emphasis. I could write an entire piece on any one of these, describing the process and the reasoning, but it is the fifth value, “open identity” which has spurred the most debate.

Related to community generated content on The Rapidian, “open identity” means that for all stories, comments or op-ed pieces, the identity of the presenter is public. Commenters must be registered. Reporters use their real names. In short, everyone claims their own words.

Though the initial choice was made for “open identity”, I do recognize that there are important examples of the value of author anonymity. Forefathers Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under a pseudonym. Whistle blowers have used anonymity to shine light on unscrupulous activities. Dictators have been overthrown and revolutions successful, aided by anonymous communication.

But we have also experienced countless examples of hateful or unsubstantiated content on the web, where speakers hide behind made-up user names and have no qualms about spewing garbage about their enemies, neighbors, or entire groups of people. We also observed that letters to the editor in print publications are routinely vetted. Phone calls to the writer ensure identity before the attributed comments go to print. Making a statement at a public meeting? You have to start with your name (and sometimes even your address). Particularly in local conversation and debate, revealing your identity is often the norm. If it took place in the town square instead of on the Internet, folks would be face-to-face.

In many ways, The Rapidian is a new town square for Grand Rapids. After plenty of consideration and debate, we launched the Rapidian as an “open identity” project; betting that presenting ones actual self along with content, will encourage civility and reinforce the intended “neighbor-to-neighbor” nature of this experiment. We think it will better encourage ethical work and proper attribution. In other words, it supports the other values we have established.

Does this mark the end of the discussion on this issue? I certainly hope not. The Rapidian is in “beta” phase, and we are counting on additional input from the community to make it the best it can be. My guess (and hope) is that folks will still weigh in on this issue, and the conversation can continue. What do you think? Please join in the conversation!

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Local Citizen Journalism…Establishing Values Networking…re-explained.

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