How NOT to use the Internet

For those of you unfamiliar with the Kurt Greenbaum saga, it is a textbook example of Internet usage gone wrong.

Here’s the condensed version of the story:

Kurt Greenbaum is a social media expert for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He writes a blog for them called “Talk of the Day”, which is essentially a personal-type opinion blog used to discuss a variety of topics. Recent topics include usage of BC versus BCE, and a discussion of the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten. It was this last post that has caused quite a bit of uproar. It seems that a poster to the site, confident in the anonymity of the Net, decided it would be funny to answer with a bit of sophomoric humor (in the words of Naughty by Nature “It’s another way to call a kitty a cat”). Surprise, surprise, right?

Anyway, Greenbaum promptly deleted this post, but upon its re-posting from the same IP address, took the matter into his own hands. Using  analytic software (we’re watching you!), he determined the IP address originated from a St. Louis-area school. He then called the school and informed them of the situation. The school’s IT administrator traced the IP address back to a certain school employee, who was then confronted. The poster then resigned on the spot.

Since this incident took place, Greenbaum has been skewered online, everywhere from Reddit and Digg, to the Huffington Post, not to mention countless Tweeters, have picked up this story, most reacting unfavorably towards Greenbaum. Perhaps worst of all, an Internet vigilante has taken Greenbaum to task, hijacking his own name, to create a flame site, KurtGreenbaum.com (warning: site contains vulgar language).

This situation shows how the Internet brings out the worst in people, as well as demonstrating how not to react to a situation online. First of all, the commenter, is obviously someone with a juvenile sense of humor. Like most trolls, he no doubt felt secure behind the black veil of anonymity that the World Wide Web provides. Of course, as he now knows, that veil is primarily a facade. Any web master worth his or her salt has analytic software in place that tells you exactly who is looking at your site.  Thus, troll or flame at your own risk.

Secondly, if you’re going to be the online idiot that everyone hates, do it from home or the library, or basically anywhere except your place of employment. Almost every business has some form of Internet policy, and posting vulgar comments to Web sites is generally not accepted practice.

Of course, the worst decision in this entire saga was Greenbaum’s knee jerk reaction to tattle. Now I understand the impulse. I’ve dealt with trolls and idiots. It’s a common reaction to call them out for their behavior. But the comments in question were not attacking Greenbaum or the Post-Dispatch, they were just immature. And they surely didn’t warrant a call to the poster’s place of employment.

Additionally, it seems that part of the Post-Dispatch’s Web site privacy policy states: “We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information.” To my mind, this is sort of a gray area. It’s not directly solicited user information like an e-mail address, but at the same time, user information is user information, and seemingly covered under the above statement.

By taking the law into his own hands, Greenbaum has unwittingly brought about the wrath of the online community. Almost universally, his actions have been decried in message boards, forums and comment sections.

Personally, I don’t think it was Greenbaum’s intention to villainize himself this way. Had the IP address in question not linked back to a school, I wonder if he would have had the same reaction. Unfortunately, his actions set a precedent, one that reflects very poorly on his own employer. All in all, this further shows the power that an online presence can wield, whether for good or bad. The Internet is not your living room. Please consider what you are doing, because it does reflect back on you.

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