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Leaving a Vulgar Comment Online Might Cost You Your Job

A backlash against anonymous commenters and trolls seems to be underway. Only last month, a court case was settled where anonymous commenters ended up having to pay big fines to the women who they defiled using vulgar, derogatory remarks on an internet forum. And previously, an anonymous blogger in the modeling industry was forced to reveal her identity after numerous malicious posts about a colleague showed up on her blog. Now the latest scandal in this new trend of "giving the trolls what they deserve" is causing a controversy all of its own. And this time, the nasty comment didn't just lead to an embarrassing reveal or a heavy fine, it cost someone their job.

A One-Word Comment Cost a School Employee His Job

A vulgar comment was made by a reader of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website on Friday on an article about the strangest things you've ever eaten. The headline was practically asking for a juvenile response and, thanks to the anonymity of the internet, that's exactly what happened. In the comments section of the article, one user posted a single word response referring to a part of a woman's anatomy. Of course, the site's moderators quickly deleted the comment but it soon reappeared - obviously this juvenile was intent on having their say.

But this time, instead of just deleting the comment in question, the site's director of social media, Kurt Greenbaum, did a little sleuthing too. He found that the commenter's IP address was coming from a local school...and that's where this story starts to get interesting.

Greenbaum contacted the school and made them aware of the situation. In his defense, he probably thought he was simply tattle-telling on a naughty student who would learn a valuable lesson about internet anonymity and would have to sit through a week's detention or something of the like. Instead, he cost a school employee his job.

Yes, as it turns out, the commenter in question wasn't a juvenile after all, just someone with a juvenile mind. Greenbaum learned of the firing when the school phoned him back six hours later to report their findings. They had confronted the employee and he had resigned.
Crossing the Line? Or Justice Served?

The question being hotly debated now is did Greenbaum go too far? Or did the commenter get what they deserved?

Mathew Ingram, the blogger and communities editor for Toronto's The Globe and Mail, writes on his personal blog that his paper's site has seen hundreds or even thousands of comments, most of which are much worse than the one Greenbaum saw, but he would never - and has never - contacted someone's workplace about them. He calls Greenbaum's actions "over-the-top" and apparently, many commenters on's website agree, calling out Greenbaum over this incident.

And yet Greenbaum seems to show no remorse, responding to one commenter who accused him of hating moderating so much that he decided to get someone fired by saying: "Yeah, you caught me! I made him log on to his computer at work, visit's Talk of the Day, read the item, type a vulgarity and hit the 'submit' key."

Sixteen pages of comments now follow that initial interaction, and the majority of them seem to agree that Greenbaum crossed a line, save for the occasional concerned parent who didn't like the idea of this vulgarity-posting person hanging around their children instead of doing his job.
Lesson to Be Learned: Watch What You Say!

We can't blame Greenbaum for the sleuthing bit - any blogger will tell you they've been tempted to hunt down the identities of nasty commenters from time to time. But calling someone's work? That's just wrong.

Yet while Greenbaum may have been seriously misguided to do what he did, this should be another sobering reminder to anyone trolling the net that what you type may come back and haunt you one day. There's no such thing as true anonymity on the net these days, and thanks to new technologies like Facebook Connect, the days where you can hide behind a made-up web handle may be numbered. In fact, Facebook itself may even owe its success to how it forces users to post with their "real" name and identity notes blogger Kent Newsome. "With a name comes accountability, and there is a direct correlation between accountability and behavior," he writes.

That may be true, but the fact of the matter is that the STLtoday website allows anonymous comments. When you make that choice, then you have to expect that some of them will need moderation - it's just part of the job. Regardless of the site's policies about vulgarity, phoning the employer seems like an over-reaction to the incident. But that's just our opinion. What do you think?


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Posted in: News on November 26, 2009 @ 9:25 PM

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