To Kill an Anonymous Commenter: Huffington Post’s New System Cites Harper Lee

The extended metaphor.

The extended metaphor.

Last Friday, The Huffington Post announced that it would be doing away with its anonymous commenter accounts, a move that marks a recent trend in digital publishing outlets to hold their users more accountable for their remarks. (Many sites, such as the Observer‘s, requires that a commenter must sign in through Facebook or another social media service tied to their identity before being able to post.)

“At HuffPost, we publish nearly 9 million comments a month, but we’ve reached the point where roughly three-quarters of our incoming comments never see the light of day, either because they are flat-out spam or because they contain unpublishable levels of vitriol,” Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the Huffington Post Media Group, wrote today in defense of this new policy, giving examples of some of the uglier statements certain articles have incurred.

“Would the disturbed people who posted these comments have done so if they couldn’t hide behind anonymity?”

For the answer to this question, Mr. Soni points to a scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which might not be the best example of the elevation of discourse among small-minded people, but has a couple good scenes in it anyway.

Here is Mr. Soni’s recap of the scene in question (italics are actual quotations from the book):

The children push their way into the space between Atticus and the mob. Scout scans the crowd for a familiar face and finds one in Walter Cunningham. She offers a friendly greeting but is met with silence. She persists:

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.

“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”

Mr. Cunningham stays silent. There follows an uncomfortable interval, with the entire assembly standing quiet and stock-still. Scout begins to “feel sweat gathering at the edges of [her] hair,” until, finally, Mr. Cunningham breaks the silence.

“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.

Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”
And thus exposed, the mob dispersed.

If only there were more mods like Scout, but unfortunately there aren’t, so The Huffington Post will have to be both the sheriff AND Scout to its own users. Which actually muddles the metaphor, but we see what they’re getting at here.