Nothing starts a good discussion in the blogosphere like a suggestion intended to legislate blogosphere conversations.
After Kathy Sierra, well known in certain blog circles, received egregiously threatening comments on her blog and on others (which have subsequently been taken down), Tim O'Reilly, who coined the phrase "Web 2.0," and Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, set out to propose a blogger's "code of conduct" to help foster civility in the vast blogosphere (Dan Gillmor tackles this issue in his column this week).
One of the major discussion points was the role of anonymity in blogs. Of course, anonymous sources are not new. But in the blogosphere, the anonymous can start their own blogs or comment everywhere without disclosing their identity.
This surely gives PR pros, whose reputation so often hinges on that of their clients, a serious fright. Anonymous and ad hominem attacks are common in the blogosphere, but it would be fallacious for PR pros to think that supporting a code of conduct is both a good idea and a truly effective one. Remember, 92% of word-of-mouth conversations occur offline, and those dialogues, which likely include occasional slander, certainly have no code of conduct.
New-media experts have often levied the optimistic claim that the truth will outweigh the lies online, by virtue of the blogosphere's quest for fairness. Unfortunately, this concept is as empty as Gawker editor Emily Gould's recent defense of Gawker Stalker, a feature where citizens send in unverified celebrity sightings.
In an interview with Larry King Live guest host Jimmy Kimmel (yes, really), himself subject to what he claimed was a false report, Gould said that celebrities shouldn't worry about hurtful falsehoods regarding their conduct, by rhetorically asking, "Aren't they kind of protected by piles of money from those [metaphorical] rocks [thrown at them]?" That mentality - about celebrities and companies - is shared by many people; not all of them are anonymous.
Everyone, even companies that have improperly acted before, deserves the truth. But what happens when they don't get it? This is one of PR's greatest challenges in the near future, but don't expect the publics to care much about billion- and hundred-million-dollar entities getting less than a fair shake.
Some companies and their employees have used the bad judgment to post anonymous, ad hominem attacks only to fail to cover their tracks. Companies, used to having more resources at hand than their attackers, have to take the moral route, not because it will engender good will, but because it's necessary.
The only solution is for PR pros to ensure that companies remain communicative and maintain strict disclosure policies for their online activities. Anonymous, false comments will always sting, but their efficacy will decrease if the public feels that there is a place where they can get honest answers from the attacked company. It doesn't provide a tidy answer, but nothing online does.