San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
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July 19th, 2009
This Martian Life: Stand behind your words

This Martian Life: A Column
By SEAN WARDWELL
Managing Editor  

The Internet has been the great equalizer of our time. Never has there been such easy access to information. However, a drawback of this online world is its impersonal nature. It used to be if one got a letter, he knew who it came from. Putting thoughts on paper had a certain permanence, as well. People had to stand behind their words and bear the consequences that came from them.

Now, with online handles, pseudonyms, etc, things have absolutely changed.

We journalists don’t really get a lot of perquisites. Given our generally binary society, it’s virtually guaranteed one side will despise us while the other side generally tolerates us. Then they switch. However, the one thing we do have that nobody can take away is our byline, and we positively adore it.

The byline keeps us honest. It lets the public know a person wrote this and she stands behind it. Everyone likes recognition and credit, but, more than anything else, the byline seals information with personal reputation. That just can’t be bought.

Now, how would a serious story look if it were written by, say, RamblinMan161, or WildAngel22? There’s no weight to the words then. It doesn’t matter how compelling the work might be, or how right someone is. Without the possibility of measuring the information or the argument against a real name connected to a presumably real person or entity, I honestly have a difficult time taking it seriously.

There are some who wish to participate in online debate, but have a real fear of being outed due to legal or job related reasons. That I do understand, and most of the time, they at least have the courtesy of making up a respectable and mature sounding handle. This isn’t directed at them.

This is, however, directed at the anonymous, cowardly snipers. These armchair online warriors will laugh at the damage or hurt their words might cause, but not once have the courage or character to stand behind what they say in the full light of public scrutiny. They hide. They sulk. They stick to the shadows. To use an old Texan phrase, they’re all hat and no cattle.

What’s so difficult about using one’s own name? I’ve never been able to figure that out. If you’re right, you’re just right. Even if you’re wrong, at least you took a stand. The online pseudonym just makes good arguments less so, and bad arguments even more so.

Folks, if you have an opinion, stick by it. If you have an accusation, stand behind it. Use your name. Don’t be like those who can only be strong or clever in the dark. I know we live in a lawsuit happy culture, but truth is the best defense against libel. To use an old saw of reporters, sunshine is always the best disinfectant.

Of course, I can’t force anyone to do that, and this isn’t signaling a change in our comments policy. It’s just a hope, and a reasonable one at that.

On another note, this week is my last here at Newstreamz. I’m moving to Kansas next month so I can be closer to family. Specifically, I have a new nephew named Jude, and I really want to watch him grow up. Living in a place that doesn’t have good Tex-Mex just feels unnatural, but I suppose we all make sacrifices at one point or another.

It has been a privilege to help bring all of you the news, and I am thankful I was able to serve this community in this way. It’s also been a real joy working here at Newstreamz. I’ll miss this place, and I’ll miss San Marcos.

Take care of each other, and thank you.

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10 thoughts on “This Martian Life: Stand behind your words

  1. Best wishes, Sean, in your new chapter in life’s journey.

    And, yes, there are valid, and some not so valid, reasons some choose anonymity in their postings. If one worked for the City of San Marcos, for example, then their postings better be in line with the official stance.

    One thing that might help us shift gears from 1st to 2nd in creating online community dialog as a companion to in-person dialog, is the ability to click on the posting person’s username and (1) see all their postings, along with (2) the ability to see their profile, send them a direct message, and such.

    For example, over at the Austin American-Statesman online, I can evaluate somebody’s comments in the context of their various postings, which can help me understand their perspective and intent.

  2. While an article written by “WildAngel22” wouldn’t carry as much weight as a normal byline, neither do trash posts carry much significance. If you perceive a comment as hurtful or misinformed, just ignore it. Trolls do tend to leave for easier game when you don’t respond.

    If you feel the need to respond, a quick “Obvious troll is obvious” usually does the trick.

    I do agree with Steve, though. A more persistent comment system would serve to build a better community here. Anonymity can still be preserved if so desired, but a reputation can be built alongside your pseudonym. Good examples of how to do this are Gawker (Lifehacker.com, for example), Shacknews’ forum software, or anything of the like.

  3. Watch out for that weather in Kansas Sean. I’ll miss your thoughtful and analytical editorials. But I wish you the best. Good luck – from Lila Knight. And that really is my name, for what it’s worth.

  4. Good Luck Sean.

    We are sorry to see you go. Your journalistic acumen was evident from the beginning, and San Marcos has never had an over-abundance of excellent reporters, but when one leaves, I always worry that he or she who steps up as the replacement, will not have the grasp and ability to adequately fill the need.

    There will definitely be a gap, where you stood, ….and I mean that literally as well as figuratively.

    DMN

  5. Anonymity protects the innocent and guilty, since retribution is the name of the game.

    There are some blogs that still demand you ID yourself, though they are getting more rare.

    Good luck in Kansas. You will need it. 🙂

  6. Couldn’t agree with you more Sean.

    Your professionalism will be missed in this venue.

    Have a great life!

  7. It’s the “idea” that matters, not ‘who’ said it. Many famous people throughout History have used pseudonyms rather than identify themselves, yet this did not remove credibility of their ideas in print. I guess you are too young to know or apply this knowledge.

  8. While I’ve sat in the shadows over the years reading of your reporting…your courage to take on unpopular and controversial issues, your objectivity toward those issues, your strength and integrity toward the well-being of the good people in San Marcos – I now choose to this time would be appropriate to comment that am so proud of you. I wish you well in your new endeavors. With love and deepest respect, Dad.

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