On January 1, 2019 for the first time since the Vanguard’s founding on July 30, 2006, only people who post under their full names will be allowed to comment on the Vanguard. In a very real way, this will mark the culmination of one nearly 13-year journey and the beginning of another.
Perhaps only the most long time of readers will recall but originally the entire Vanguard was anonymous – when I founded the Vanguard, I created the name Doug Paul Davis under which I posted for two full years. When I started, most people didn’t even know who Doug Paul Davis was.
The original concept coming out of very contentious times in 2006 was that the Vanguard would be an anonymous whistle blowing website. No one would know who was behind it, but it would hold public officials accountable.
While that sounds crazy in retrospect, at the time, I tried to pattern it out of a feature from the San Luis Obispo “New Times” – an alternative weekly, which had a regular column, “The Shredder” which as the name implies, anonymous “shredded” public officials and uncovered wrongdoing.
As it turned out, it was a lot easier to run a normal newspaper with a single anonymous feature, than an entire anonymous publication.
Over the course of the next 13 years – necessity and practical considerations would slowly win out. By January 2007, I made the decision to “come out” in a Sacramento Bee article that greatly expanded our readership. By the end of 2008, I dropped the pseudonym entirely – it was too confusing for me to write under one name and meet with people under my real name.
It has been an evolving journey. In 2009, following a very contentious battle of Wildhorse Ranch, we made several changes. We required registration in order to post comments – that meant that people could post under whatever name they wanted, but it was going to be fixed. At the same time, we brought on Don Shor, as a full time, volunteer moderator to keep things a bit more civil.
In 2016, we decided to eliminate most anonymous postings, but we allowed a handful of people to post under a first name and last initial.
The decision to end anonymous postings was not one we undertook lightly. For seven years now, the Vanguard has had an editorial board and since the first days in Spring 2012, when the board was comprised of: Matt Williams, Tia Will, Robb Davis, Bernie Goldsmith, and Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald – the most contentious issue has always been anonymous posting.
To be honest, I was the final holdout on the board for the change. My original concept still holds weight for me – the idea that people should be able to point out wrongdoing without fear of retaliation. It is why we have retained features like Yolo Leaks that allows for anonymous tips or full on leaks.
But what I did not anticipate when we started was the degree to which anonymity acts as a shield for decency. Let me be clear – because I have made this argument many times in our meetings – if you do a comparison between certain anonymous posters and certain “named posters” – you in fact may not be able to discern which one is acting more egregiously.
However, when you have an anonymous poster, there is an inherent asymmetry. One person operates at an information advantage and one person operates at an information disadvantage. And so, we have cases where anonymous posters have pulled up public information about the private lives to attack individuals who are posting under their actual names.
This is not just a case where the phenomenon called doxing is an annoyance, but actually a deterrence to public participation.
The perception of people being attacked by a horde of anonymous posters has led people to either not participate on the Vanguard or stop participating. In some cases, some very notable and prominent people in this community have stopped participating on the Vanguard because of attacks from anonymous people.
Several points I want to address:
First, I value a diversity of viewpoints. We have always had an open publication policy. I have never rejected a local submission because I disagree with it. It would be our hope that people of all political persuasions locally and nationally will feel free to participate in our discussions. We hope that over time, these changes will allow our commenting population to grow again.
Second, the perception of the Vanguard comment section is that it feels at times like the Wild Wild West. Even with the diligent efforts of Don Shor to patrol it. Moreover, to many it feels like there is an anonymous good ole boys network ready to strike down people who venture in unwittingly. This move is designed to change this culture.
Third, as many have pointed out, it is not nearly enough simply to go after anonymous posters – I agree. So we will crack down on comments from all participants that are personal attacks. It is a fine line between attacking the idea and attacking the individual – but it is important to guard that line.
Fourth, for 13 years we have tended to view the idea that more comments were better than less comments. But as I have seen in recent weeks, there have been a number of articles where there are a lot of comments but the quality of those comments is lacking. There is no substantive conversation. Or worse yet, the conversation breaks down into name-calling and insults. That doesn’t invite others to participate.
This is a move that will seek to change the culture of posting on the Vanguard. For many who have followed the Vanguard over the years, they will have to see it to believe. Culture is a tough thing to change. But the Vanguard will be undergoing many changes at one – a new comment policy, a new website, and a new major marketing effort.
We will see what that future will bring. But just as our initial changes were driven by necessity, we believe that in order for the Vanguard to reach the next step, this too must change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting