The Post Dispatch’s “Social Media Guy” Tattles on Naughty Commenter, Craps on Privacy Policy

kurtKurt Greenbaum, Director of Social Media at the St. Louis Post Dispatch jumped on his blog the other day to gleefully tell the tale about how he tracked down one of the thousands of nasty commenters on STLToday.com, called the employer of the commentator (based on the IP/Hostname) and because of his tattle-telling, the dude got fired.

…and then the internet skull-f*cked him.

Here’s a few of the comments on his original blog post entitled “Post a Vulgar Comment at Work, Lose Your Job“:

You seem to revel in the fact that a guy who made a mildly-offensive, silly comment on an asinine blog post is no longer employed. That’s a dick move in and of itself.

For someone who has self-annointed himself the “STL Social Media Guy”, you’re pretty clueless — and perhaps dangerous to the Social Media movement (from a laughingstock perspective at the very least).

Oh and if you’re going to report me to my boss for an implied (again) “P” word, that’s fine.

Sounds like you should get rid of your commenting system if you’re going to react like that.

So strange that newspapers are going out of business, isn’t it? Alienating readers? Great business plan. Good luck in the new media landscape Kurt. And no, I’m not posting from a job, so you can’t get me fired, bigshot.

So basically you’re a humorless jerk, Kurt, and you’re proud of it.

This is our favorite one:

I would think that someone who works for Lee Publications would have more sympathy for those who lose their jobs.

So there are really two questions in play: 1. Was this a dick move?  and 2. Can/Should the operator of a website do this?

Was this a dick move?

Oh yeah.  Totally.

The fired commenter dropped a vulgar comment on a post entitled “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”  so though I think we can all agree the post was totally asking for it, STLToday is still a site that all ages go to and the site has all the right in the world to remove those types of comments, and we fully agree with that.  However, when  you go tracking down a commenter’s host name and then call the place up?!  Dude, I really still don’t know what the Director of Social Media does, but clearly they should also make him scrub the toilets because this guy doesn’t have enough to do!

Greenbaum, will and has on his follow up post, retorted with the fact that finding out where the post came from wasn’t hard…

The name of the school was readily visible on the e-mail alert about the comment.

Well you know what?  Tripping old ladies isn’t hard either, but its still a dick move.

Case closed.

Was this the right thing to do?

When you run any kind of site that has even a few “social” features on it, like comments, you are quickly inundated with data about your users, even the anonymous ones.  The basic rules are simple: Don’t do a damn thing with this data unless it is 100% anonymous statistics.  Sure all that data seems harmless, the IP from where they last logged on, what time it was, what they searched for, their password to your site.  But take that last example.  Do you have a different password for every site?  I bet you don’t.  I bet its the same one as  your email account…  As we’ve said before, you have full rights to block comments and edit them all you like on your server but crossing over to what was essentially calling someone’s mother, is over the line and can lead to nothing but a slippery slope.

For this very reason most sites have a “privacy policy” and guess what?  STLToday is no different, and Greenbaum is all for it. He even says in that same follow up post:

I did not and would not violate our privacy policy. I regret that this episode may have cast doubt on that. We take our privacy policy seriously.

Lets take a look-see at that privacy policy shall we?  Hmm…hmm…I like it when we read together… Oh here we go!  Right under the header “What We Do With the Information We Gather About You” (Emphasis mine)

We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information. In some cases, however, we may provide information to legal officials as described in “Compliance with Legal Process” below.

I think its clear that he did in fact violate his own site’s Privacy Policy, not when he looked up the hostname, but the minute he picked up the phone and volunteered the IP and creation time of the comment. The only loophole here is that last sentence and Greenbaum certainly didn’t mention talking with the FBI about this particular comment and frankly I doubt they would be interested.

What should he have done here?

Deleted, or edited the comment.

I agree with Greenbaum that “blocking” or “banning” the IP is not the solution here as that might block other innocent people from using the site, but that is hardly the only option.  STLToday isn’t the only site out there with people wanting to leave nasty comments.  Some sites don’t care of course, but others do and most of those sites have found ways to help the issue with out sinking to violating their user’s privacy.  I don’t want to take this piece into beginning web development, but just look at the commenting systems on sites like Digg, or even ToastedRav.com and you can see that the comments there stay very clean despite the amount of nasty crap that goes through them each day like all sites.

What Greenbaum needs to do now is not give some half-hearted applogy on his blog, he needs to own up to the fact that he violated every user’s trust with this move.  Other than that, there’s nothing left he can do.  You can’t get the guy his job back, and you can’t “fix” this.  The damage is done.  Sure this is something that mainly is festering on Twitter, but thats the very crowd you want on your side.  These are the thought leaders in this new age and in a way, you just up-skirted them.

If anyone has any leads on who the “mysterious vulgar commenter” is, please shoot us an email at tips@punchingkitty.com or leave a text or voicemail at 314-266-TIPS  We would really like to follow up with him…plus he sound like he might be funny.