This blog caught my eye the other day. It’s written by a guy at the St. Louis Post Dispatch about someone who posted a naughty euphemism for a part of the female anatomy on their comment board relating to the topic of “strangest thing you’ve ever eaten.” Actually, the way it played out, if I understand correctly, was this: The poster posted said naughty word. That post was removed by a moderator. The poster then re-posted the same word.
That, I guess, raised the hackles of the Director of Social Media for the site, who tracked down the IP Address of the poster, which indicated the post came from a local school. He called the school, and forwarded them the information. Using whatever technical mumbo-jumbo he gave them, the school tracked down the offending employee, who apparently resigned on the spot.
This is a new-world issue. I suppose that back-in-the-day you might get in trouble at work if you wrote such a one word letter to the editor. But see, the editor wouldn’t publish that letter, and unless you’re a complete idiot, you wouldn’t put your (real) name or return address on it, so there was no way to really get in trouble. Nowadays, though, whether you know it or not, you’re electronically putting your name and address (sort of) on everything you do online.
Now, while I’ll admit I find it at least a little funny in this context, it’s hard to defend posting that one word euphemism for a part of a woman’s anatomy on a message board. It’s juvenile, to be sure. I’m not really in a position to criticize someone else’s juvenile attempts at humor. When it comes to juvenile humor, I not only live in a glass house, I own the whole subdivision.
I do find it a bit obnoxious that some dude down at the newspaper took it upon himself to investigate who wrote that, and essentially turn him or her (I assume it’s a ‘him,’ but that’s crass and sexist on my part to think that only a man would be such a pig) in to his/her employer. If you’re reading this on KZIA.com (in other words, you’re not my grandmother (hi, Mimi!) who is reading a copy of this printed for you by my mother (hi, Mom!)) you have the ability to submit comments below. The difference between our comments section and the one on this newspaper site is that ours are all pre-moderated. That is, you write what you want, I or someone else gets alerted that you’ve posted, I or someone else reads what you’ve writ, and we approve, edit, or delete the comment. Not unlike a letter to the editor.
In this everything-right-now world in which we exist currently, that process may seem painfully slow, and I suppose it is. But we own this little corner of the internet landscape, and we’re gosh darn it going to protect it from the legion people who might write “Greg sucks.” I wouldn’t mind a little bit of that, but free posting can get a little out of control in an awfully big hurry, so we made the decision to moderate everything prior to publication.
Now, had the newspaper in question done that, they’d have no problem. No one would ever have seen that grossly offensive word on their dainty webpage, so they’d have had no need to try to put a stop to it. They made the choice, though—and probably the correct one for their purposes—that when people want to engage others online, they want to converse in the here-and-now, not in the wait-and-see. We don’t typically get a lot of back and forth commenting on this site because it would take repeated visits over the course of hours or days to participate.
The newspaper opened their site up to free commenting. As this incident points out, it’s moderated, but if I wanted to, I guess I could go on there and write anything I want. If they didn’t like what I wrote, they’d delete it later, whenever they caught it. Or, they could have filters in place that replace suspect words with *****. Plenty of sites do that. Seems perfectly fair; it is, after all, their site. What seems less fair is to alert the employer of someone whose posts you don’t care for.
Given the anonymous nature of the comments, the other users have no idea who is posting what. There is no chance for the employee to be identified by the general public, and therefore no chance for the post to reflect negatively on the employer in the public eye. One could argue that posting on a newspaper’s website is not appropriate workplace behavior, but that sure as heck isn’t the newspaper’s problem to monitor, it’s the employer’s.
It’s rather chilling to me to think that there are people moderating websites that think it is okay to contact my employer and assist them in identifying me if they don’t care for what I write. The web is a largely unbridled expression of the First Amendment. You’d think a newspaper, of all places, would be a staunch defender of that right.
The Internet can border on anarchy at times. I’m not much of an anarchist, but I’d sure prefer that to the potential fascism that this kind of “moderation” lends itself. In fact, this moderator behaved in a way distinctly different than would be described as “moderate,” which would indicate a reasonable middle ground.
As a person who works in the public eye, I have to be vigilant about how what I say and do outside of work reflects on my employer. I usually am aware of this idea, and think I am (usually) (relatively) careful in this regard. I’d feel less of a need to be careful if I were posting anonymously on a website that allowed anonymous posting. To have them essentially revoke that anonymity capriciously after the fact is completely beyond their purview in my opinion, and if anyone is losing their job over this, it ought not be the guy who posted some stupid word, but rather the guy (at a newspaper of all places!) who does not understand the right of free expression.