How Not To Become An Internet Meme

By | November 20, 2009

Here’s a cautionary tale/”learning moment” about how *not* to handle commenting and social mediaon your site. This backlash is happening to a friend of mine, Kurt Greenbaum, the social media editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s

TL;DR version: If you take anonymous comments on your Web site, leave them anonymous. Social media is disruptive; you cannot control conversations, but you can influence them.  Don’t be jerk. Guard yourself and your online information against jerks. 

Here’s the full story: Last Friday, an anonymous user posted a single vulgar word as a comment to one of’s daily opinion message boards. Kurt deleted the post. The commenter returned and reposted, again the same word.

Kurt then made what many critics are calling his first mistake: He used the captured IP address of the post to identify from where it had come, and after identifying it as a school, he contacted them about the comment. The school’s IT department and principal managed to identify the individual as a teacher, confronted him, and he’s now out of a job.

Some social media advocates are saying Kurt broke his site’s Terms of Service, to which Kurt disagrees. (

Here’s a blurb off “Our web servers automatically collect limited information about your computer’s connection to the Internet, including your IP address (but not the e-mail address), when you visit our sites. Your IP address does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally. We use this information to deliver our web pages to you upon request, to tailor our sites to the interests of our users, and to measure traffic within our sites.”

Second mistake: Kurt added insult to injury by posting the following Twitter and blog comment: “Amazed at the readers who comment in defense of a jackass who posted a vulgarity on our site — and lost his job.” — and (recently protected but archived for the public to read elsewhere).

Important lesson: Don’t taunt the Internet, nor angry and newly unemployed people who have friends online. Within 24 to 48 hours, the “newmedia versus old media” and privacy debates turned into nasty personal attacks, through which the following was posted:

* Kurt’s work and mobile phone numbers
* Kurt’s boss’ contact info
* Details on how to hack Kurt’s cell phone
* Kurt’s home street address
* Kurt’s wife’s name
* Photos of his family’s home.

Along with these came comments to other forum users that “You know what to do.” Web sites like (not Kurt’s site, but a revenge site) and threads topping with almost 1,000 comments archived this information for anyone to read.

Ongoing coverage:

FP Tech Desk: Kurt Greenbaum vs. the vulgar commenter

School Employee Loses Job Over Vulgar Comment Online