Have Pen Names Reduced The Overall Quality Of Comments?


internet-websiteThe following, by Yaakov Menken, appears at the Cross Currents site:

We’ve just been through an extensive discussion about a single offhand remark, made privately to Rabbi Adlerstein, concerning a single comment on a single website, read uncharitably, from which we then extrapolate an entire “train of thought” which, with no further evidence, we are to assume is endemic to the charedi community – and whether that Torah personality’s offhand remark should have been made publicly, and further, whether the failure to make said remark publicly reflects a fear of Gedolim to speak their minds. The best reaction to this was probably that of the writer using the moniker kman: “Maybe it’s just me, but we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Having just quoted someone who contributed using a moniker, I’m going to criticize the practice. There is a discussion about anonymity that is long overdue, but that one wasn’t it.

Put succinctly, I think the use of pen names has reduced the overall quality of comments and level of dialogue of this journal. This is not universally true, but I believe that if one weighs the cost and benefit, anonymous comments have done more harm than good.

A few months ago, I prevailed upon Eytan Kobre to start contributing again. He told me that the consistent negativity of the comments was, in fact, the reason why he found Cross-Currents a less than ideal outlet for his thoughts. He didn’t want to close the door on comments, as Rabbi Shafran does, or completely ignore them like Rabbi Rosenblum. So the appropriate way to avoid “snarky” comments was not to post at all.

I encouraged him to try an alternative: to post, but with the condition that any comments not be anonymous. And lo and behold, a productive discussion ensued.

Actually, that’s not quite true. One of our moderators didn’t get the memo, and allowed through a pair of anonymous comments – and Eytan noted that he’d gotten snarky comments again. But when those two comments were “unapproved,” all was well. There was a perfect correlation between anonymous and obnoxious; get rid of one, and no further efforts were required to rid ourselves of the other.

Something similar happened with one of my own posts. I received a brief, disrespectful, snarky comment that said obviously I feel X… when, had the poor fellow read the previous comments, he’d have seen me clearly state the opposite. And from the real email address accompanying the fake name, the author was a medical doctor, who’d clearly have been embarrassed to have his name and reputation associated with an obvious lack of reading comprehension. Rather than waste 15 minutes explaining that the sun rises in the east, I trashed the comment. The same “contribution” that reflected insufficient grasp of the material carried with it all the “snark” in the comment thread when it left.

Coincidentally (though of course, nothing is coincidence), shortly after composing my initial draft of this post, I received the latest issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, containing an article about the Daily Princetonian‘s debate about this very subject. University President Shirley Tilghman wrote the following in a letter to the editor:

Anonymity invites candor, to be sure, but it also invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite. In an academic community like ours, anonymous comments strike me as entirely out of place. The Honor Code demands that students ‘own their words’ in their academic work.

The counterargument expressed by the graduating former editor-in-chief (besides the inappropriate assertion that Tilghman’s letter was an “attempt to limit the paper’s freedom”) pointed out that professors may risk their jobs by commenting, alumni “have careers and public images that they might not want tied to their opinions on the University,” and students “know every person involved in most of the paper’s articles.” But a Professor (of Journalism) expressed distate with the “bullying and the crudeness and the trolls,” while acknowledging that anonymity helps in some contexts.

Note that it was the students who advocated for (and, it being the student paper, ultimately decided in favor of) retaining anonymous comments, while the more mature voices were more troubled by the negative effects. Just saying. But it is possible to be more discerning, because anonymous comments fall into perhaps three general categories, and it’s usually not difficult to distinguish between them:

Sometimes a person is sharing a personal story which they do not wish to share under their own name. There is an autobiographical serial right now in Ami Magazine from someone who survived a brain tumor, to cite one example. He undoubtedly does not wish to be defined by his illness, rather than as a Rebbe and social worker. Similarly, people often share stories of kindness done to them, but don’t want to be identified as the recipients. This is all understandable and welcome.

A second category comprises those who want to offer an opinion, but don’t want that opinion to affect them professionally – similar to the professors and alumni commenting to “The Prince.” We have, by this time, received requests from former commenters who, having moved into the professional world, no longer want their professional reputation colored by their youthful opinions. I think this is similarly understandable.

It is the third category that is insidious and harmful. These are the armchair critics, those who wish not merely to state their own opinion, but to criticize others, yet to do so from behind an anonymous pen name. As I said in a comment several days ago, anonymity shields these writers from self-reflection, humility, and careful judgment.

It also permits them to engage in behavior which is, in a word, impermissible. We have something much stronger than Princeton’s Honor Code that must govern how we speak and write, and how we sign our names makes no difference. In just a few more decades, no longer than a century for almost all writers, we will have to answer for pain and embarrassment caused to others. Anonymity will be no excuse, and even worse, the anonymous writer might be unwilling to shed that anonymity in order to beg forgiveness in this lifetime. Halbonas Panim is akin to murder, and anonymity is all too often an accessory to the crime.

As a (named) commenter said recently, explaining why he sometimes will comment anonymously, “I find I have to worry a lot less about my language choice, whether someone will be offended.” That, of course, is exactly the point. You should be thinking about the tenor of your words, of whether you are, in fact, being offensive. Disagreement is fine, but civility is the overriding issue, and the anonymous writer seems vastly more likely to transgress the bounds of civil discourse (and halacha).

This leads me, at least for my own posts, to react to anonymous comments based upon content. If you want to share a personal story anonymously, that’s fine. And if you want to share an idea, a thought, a question, that’s probably fine as well. But if someone criticizes another opinion, a group of Jews, Gedolim, etc., much less belittles another writer or commenter, then that’s using anonymity to “troll,” shielded from the repercussions of whatever nonsense the commenter might happen to spew… and we can strive for better than that. To those who wish to do so, I have but two words of advice: don’t bother. Those are the “contributions” for which the “trash” moderation option was designed, and I believe the overall effect will benefit us if we use it more, not less.


{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Why not judge the comment based on content. If it is logical, reasonable, and makes sense than discuss it, if not disregard it. I for one abstain from using my real name because I fear you will google it and begin writing personal things about me which are likely wrong (i have a pretty generic name), and turn the conversation into a tirade about who you think i am and what my values are instead of a open conversation regarding the subject at hand. I have seen you do this before, and your comment about the doctor confirms this. In fact it’s kinda creepy that you have a tendency to “research” commenters names on CC. In an age where the average professional has a plethora of personal and professional information on the web anonymity, especially in the jewish community,can help ensure safety and social stability for a family who may not hold the same views as the commentator themselves.

  2. Your headline: “Have Pen Names Has Reduced The Overall Quality Of Comments?”

    So to what do you attribute the terrible overall quality of your headline writing?

  3. I BELIEVE YOU ARE THE SAME WHO WRITES FOR ‘TORAH.ORG.I admire your writings but here you are very wrong.

    A nic name does protect the identity but for what purpose?
    Its protection against the stalkers the vicious people the crazies the dangerous the evil the criminal and is a nesassary protection. If the writer posts on the net a message to public,then he knows the protocol.

    I pose a question to you.
    I thought we are not to teach Torah to goyim yet Torah is openly deciminated. Therefore those that educate through this new medium made adjustments in their mind or lets say
    they made availble to those Jews that would never have read or never would take the time to learn in a proper surroundings.

    You too have to adjust to the medium YOU chose and not expect to change something far larger then you, namely the internet.


  4. This is an old debate. The problem is, if someone does give his full name, his real comments/opinions become distorted when the editors alter the comment to fit their agenda! I have no problem giving my real name, IF the editorial board will promise to leave my comments untouched.

  5. I like the method of other new sites, where every each commenter has only one pen name. That way at least people get to know each other a little bit

  6. Did I make a fruedian slip when in #4 I posted the word decimated?
    i mean desiminate as in
    dis·sem·i·nate transitive verb \di-?se-m?-?n?t\
    Definition of DISSEMINATE
    1: to spread abroad as though sowing seed
    2: to disperse throughout

  7. The most ridiculous part, is that giving a real name means nothing–since it may not actually be your name.

    On that website, I once posted back and forths to myself using “real names” that had “real email addresses” associated with them–just to prove how stupid they are and how I would still pass moderation. Which I did.

  8. There is a long standing tradition of gedolim publishing seforim with pen names. As commenter #1 reminded us, the Chofetz Chaim is a famous example. Also the Chazon Ish, Rav S.R. Hirsch… for some recent examples, all did so.

    Even though their identities were later revealed, that doesn’t take away from the point that writings with pen names should not be rejected out of hand.

  9. One problem here is that in our community disagreeing with the majority can get you in real trouble, not to mention ruining the shidduch chances of your daughters (and that’s no joke, either). Again and again we have been afraid to name problems, and then we experience the blow-up afterwards. A screen name gives people the freedom to comment on what they see without risking blowback. We need the freedom to comment. Should the comments be respectful? Of course. Should people have to be afraid? No.

  10. I don’t know why I’m doing this, maybe the only place I can bare my heart out.

    I used to blog away almost steadily on a heavily moderated Jewish site. I considered it to be a notch above the rest, they were selective of what went through, more “frum” than the rest. I came to enjoy other’s company there, I would really look forward for my next opportunity to “socialize”. Maybe others would call it “addicted”. I had a screen name, while obviously not my real name, I used it so much, people there referred to me by it so often, that it actually stuck to me in real life. I won’t elaborate, I’d rather not expose too much.

    One fine day (actually night) I sent someone a private email, requesting permission to communicate. I needed her opinion on a very pressing, private matter. I indicated to her how I came about to obtain/guess her email address. She went ballistic!! Next thing I found in that blog – a full page rant, an accusation of me being a “stalker”, it went on and on. My full message to her was displayed and published for all. This thing was left in the open for three days. For three days I had myself shamed and muddied, without ANY defense. All my attempts to reply, to have my most damning shame removed went unanswered. Suddenly nothing I posted made it in. I was in such a state of depression, I actually couldn’t think straight for many days. What makes this so much worse is the fact that over the years many in real life got to know my screen name, and used to follow my writings (I had a unique style). So I had so much damage done by that public exposure of that “request for communication”.

    Ever since, they have kept me away, any reference to that matter gets trashed. They know for a fact that I’m not a stalker, they know who I am, I actually did them some service a time ago. They refuse to have that person realize her grave mistake. They just ended this saga proclaiming me to be “a sick man”, and went on their merry ways.. So I guess when someone sits and moderates/edits others writings, it gives them a sense of Godliness, overall boss, lord. Their last word in any matter is obviously final, fact.

    I don’t have to tell you of my feelings of burning anger, revenge, sheer pain and grief that went on every time I had this thing in my mind. A whooping headache, real sadness, depression. Even though this whole thing is so juvenile, “babyish”, it’s still so connected; I have such a hard time putting it out of my head. Words can be daggers. To make matters worse, this woman goes on writing away as if nothing happened, she has no inkling of the great damage and destruction left in her wake, caused by her actions. Every time I see her write something (again, because it’s hard not to take a peek), it gives me another stab.

    I don’t know if it’s proper, I found myself begging HaShem to intervene, to punish…I know I shouldn’t have done it, it just went round and round in my head.

    So yes, words and blogs can be used for good, I’ve cheered and lifted people’s spirits there many, many times. I’ve written many chizuk, comforting, inspiring pieces there for others. And, it can be used for evil. I’m a living (if you call it living) example.

    It’s more than a month since it happened, it still burns. This is the first time I’m letting it out, maybe I’ll find some consolation here.

  11. I’m not against screen names per se, I’m not even against being allowed to post anonymously. But I think that a website can, possibly should, demand a valid email address that will not get posted and that the poster should post consistently under the sn or anonymously.

  12. Tzipi, emails can be faked just as easily as real names. Anybody can go to Gmail and create a “valid” email adress moshe.yankel@gmail and it would pass your test. If you have heard any sports news in the past few days you will know thay someone can make up very ellaborate online personalities that are totally false.

    The Gedolim spoke out against blogs at the asifa and as you can see they were right, we are much better off without them.

  13. #13,

    Please be honest. You are a “moderator” on that site. That’s how you had her email address. No, no, you are simply out with them in trying to “protect” that site and it’s money-over-honesty attitude.
    You have slandered many.
    Be well.

  14. #16
    Actually NOT AT ALL.

    I guessed her email address, because (how should I put it down delicately) she literately advertised it!! Do you know which site I’m talking about? Are you familiar with my saga?

    I wrote to her purposefully, explicitly, how I came about to knowing her email address. She ignored that fact. (She had enough ‘smartness’ not to publicize that part!)
    I actually alerted (gulp!) another poster there to this fact, she has since taken action to prevent that.

    I have NEVER, EVER slandered ANYONE. I choose a career of cheering up people, gladdening up, raising spirits, with a tinge of spunk, humor, wit. That was my sole existence there. (Anyone can look up my history of posts – quite long; I think it’s the longest, not even two years!)

    There was a real smart discerning poster there who commented about how I was so wronged, she couldn’t forgive that person who did it to me.

    For me shmiras halashon rules supreme. I will NOT purposefully hurt anyone’s feelings, I do not embarrass, humiliate people (especially people whom I don’t know!)

    It would make me feel so much better, it would bring so much closure, if someone would contact her, and let her know what she did to me. Alas, my hands are tied, moderators on that site refuse to post anything I write, refuse to acknowledge their GRAVE ERROR, refuse to have the initiator be made aware of her false and oh so destructive allegation. And I cannot (obviously) write her another communication, she would have the police at my doors!!

    This issue weighs on me so heavily, makes me so despondent every time I think about it, it’s so hard to remove from my mind. If someone would be able to notify her to make amends, I think would be a mitzvah of great proportions.

  15. #13 I read that thread as well as others regarding your screen persona(s) – come clean: did you hack the site to get the email? I doubt you got lucky trying to guess an email address. How many other people did you contact on that site and how many screen names did you have?

    Regarding her going ballistic – I don’t blame her. You invaded her privacy.

    finally you wrote: “I don’t know if it’s proper, I found myself begging HaShem to intervene, to punish…I know I shouldn’t have done it, it just went round and round in my head.” Let me clarify 1) it is not proper (now you know). 2) these thoughts are not only not proper but also indicative of someone who is not able to distinguish between reality (life off the net) and their screen persona (life on the boards).

    If you are confusing your real-life with your fantasy screen name life perhaps you should consider getting help with this as it appears to be a personality disorder (I am not saying it is)or perhaps a severe addition in which case perhaps you should get rid of your internet access.


  16. #18,

    Please face the reality. She is a “moderator” on that site and so are you.

    The editors and Pops (#10 here) all shift and ridicule the whole business to police, in order to protect the profit of their site.
    Honest people would have taken responsibility.
    Honest people wouldn’t ridicule.

    The saddest part of that site is people who don’t know better think that site is representative of the Torah world and Torah Jewry. They are very far from that. They are simply a business seeking to make money – more hits means more advertising revenue. They will gather more hits in any way they can.

  17. I can’t believe I have someone here, too, accusing me. For the third time – NO – I did not hack that site chas v’sholom. I’m not into those things. I explicitly wrote to her how I came upon her email. OK? You want, you can ask her. And I don’t think it’s called invading someone’s privacy by sending a private request for communication. And I don’t think if one wants not to respond, one needs to go to such lengths as to publicize a VERY HURTING, DAMAGING piece. No. I wouldn’t do it. EVER!!

    How many other screen names? One other, way at the beginning, where I hurt someone else’s feelings, (I didn’t understand the ins and outs of that site) I apologized immediately, made up with her privately by email. I was so terribly whipped, condemned by all posters coming to her defense, that I had to start anew.

    And fyi, I think I’m quite able to discern between R.L. and online communication. It’s just that powerful hurting words and comments make a dent. A big one.

    I don’t know who you are or your s/n, I don’t know, and can’t fathom why someone out there would be so poised against me. I came on exclusively to give and get chizuk, cheer, uplifting comments and the like. To share and enjoy a light moment. Why would anyone in the world have something against me for that?

    This is actually what the opening statement on this topic was, an anonymous causing hurt to another!

  18. Tortured – do you mind answering a few questions? 1) why did you post at times like a teenage girl and other times like a man with knowledge of Gemara? 2) if you are a man, why try to contact a female? 3) if you are a teenage girl – where did you learn so much Gemara? 4) what was so important for you to discuss with the lady you contacted? If it was truly as vital as you claim, a moderator would could have and would have forwarded it on your behalf.

    #19 – sorry, I am not a moderator on that site and I hardy post there – although I do read the site.

    re: “The saddest part of that site is people who don’t know better think that site is representative of the Torah world and Torah Jewry. They are very far from that. They are simply a business seeking to make money – more hits means more advertising revenue. They will gather more hits in any way they can.” All of the so called Jewish sites are businesses. They all want clicks. Some are better than others.

  19. I never, ever posted like either female or male. I posted mostly in a chipper form, a lighter, slightly juvenile style. Exactly the style, air I wanted to exude. I’ve never closely interacted with either males or females. It’s not what I sought there. And I don’t think I posted Gemarah on my own, everything I posted (as far as I recall) was from my Rebbe – Rabbi Google. Same for any Tanach or Medrash.

    As I stated before, I came there solely to enjoy and share a kosher laugh, chuckle. To get a chance to brighten someone else’s day, to make a positive difference in another’s life (I can’t say I didn’t). To spread happiness and cheerfulness. To receive in return when I was down (quite often) a lift, a cheer, a sunshine.

    There’s a special reason why I rejoined that site, as gender neutral. That reason subsequently became obsolete, I nevertheless continued with my style.

    Why I tried to contact her? Because of her special capacity in one special field. Why I didn’t ask mods? Because I didn’t want my private request published for all. As I wrote before, I had acquaintances / family members who would follow my (outright silly) posts. I didn’t want them eyeing that request. (Little did I know that I would have the whole entire communication fly in my face – posted for all on a most active, damning thread.

    I don’t know why you’re so interested in me or my follies. I also can’t figure out how I had the guts to answer you, a total stranger, attacking me for getting attacked – but I did anyways. (now, where’s my lolly?)

  20. #21,

    It is quite clear that you are a “moderator” and employee of that site.

    You state:
    “If it was truly as vital as you claim, a moderator would could have and would have forwarded it on your behalf.”

    Hey, a moderator did contact that lady. She was a moderator. You’re very focused on defending the integrity of that site.

  21. I’m getting to think so too.

    I’m also starting to think as you #19 (#23) wrote, I think a site with upstanding morals (mentshlichhkeit) would have contacted her by now, would have put up a sort of an apology, a retraction. (Every time I see her post a most “righteous” post, I cringe.)

    I am looking for such a site, a truly kosher, upstanding one, where I could continue my style – if I ever get back into such a mood. This whole blunder really took a beating out of me. If you know of one kindly post it here.

    Thanks for listening.

  22. I am not a moderator or an employee of that site NOR will I defend that site. notice my nickname here. I used to post there – I was there from the beginning as a poster. I do not post there anymore – probably a dozen or so posts in the past 3 years.

    I do not think that it is a secret that there are several posters there posting on multiple names I assumed that you were one of them – if I am wrong – sorry – if I am correct – then you should post your apology. either way – contacted another poster either through guessing or hacking is wrong. there are dangerous people out there

  23. ..And just the same, anyone can use the nickname “Used to post there”…

    You’re right. No one today knows what to believe. But one thing, my style is unique; I don’t think anyone can confuse me for anyone else. I can’t even successfully start a new name, I’ll be instantly recognized.

    You however, sound exactly like the rest of them – turning the bullied victim into a criminal. You wrote “I assumed you were one of them” – is that truly how one must judge another Jew? Isn’t there something about being “dan l’kaf zchus”? Then you wrote “if I am correct – then you should post your apology”. For what? Haven’t they trashed and bashed me enough, three days straight? Or maybe you conveniently missed that minor thread that sent me (and accessories) reeling.

    You end by “either way – contacted another poster either through guessing or hacking is wrong.” Again – it was a request for communication. At most she should have ignored it. It should never have been posted for all. It should NEVER have made its way through moderation. Some of my numerous attempts (through posting, message via “contact us”, direct email) to have it removed should have been answered. Oh yes, they finally did remove it, after three days, after maximum damage had already been wrought. Thank you.

    If I was truly out of line to beg another’s permission for communication, a simple message would have sufficed.

    It has taught me a great deal about shmiras hadibur, dan lkaf zhus, onaas dibur, halbanas panim, motzie shem rah etc. It has taught me a lot about some human instincts – how a whole crowd will follow one clueless individual…

    Oh, and by the way, that site still refuses to have her aware of her erroneous vilification, so to all I’m that sly, slick, dangerous stalker.