Almost 20 years ago, someone close to me was fired after sending a skanky, anonymous message to a colleague through interoffice messaging...

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Almost 20 years ago, someone close to me was fired after sending a skanky, anonymous message to a colleague through interoffice messaging (back then, e-mail didn’t really exist). The colleague tattled to the boss and I — I mean, my pal — sent her a message saying she couldn’t be trusted. The boss objected, saying that anonymous nastiness had no place in the workplace.

It’s too bad this visionary boss didn’t have the opportunity to roll a few more heads over the past few decades, to punish people who lack the courage to say who they are when they send along a comment or criticism.

You can understand when people writing letters to a newspaper withhold their name, especially in a small town. In those cases, the editor knows the correspondent’s identity, but has private assurance of its veracity. Those who write a letter to the editor about a controversial topic may need to keep the wackos away from their doorstep. But an e-mail is supposed to be private and personal. Only real cowards hide their identity in a one-on-one conversation.

For some, the temptation is hard to resist. Going anonymous isn’t particularly difficult. You can sign up for a free e-mail account, make up a name, and fire away. This isn’t foolproof, as Net professionals can certainly find ways to uncover your secret identity.

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But because this is a relatively rare talent, you are safe from discovery as long as you don’t make a criminal threat.

So a sense of what is right is the only thing that really prevents you from sending anonymous messages. One of the other reasons to sign messages is practical, since much of a message’s meaning is its origin. For instance, a message imploring you to clean your room that isn’t signed “Mom” won’t carry much weight. This is why many people won’t even read a message with an unfamiliar name on the sender line.

Like almost everything else in real life, there are times that rules beg breaking — like the old advertisement with the halitosis-stricken boss. Someone has got to tell him, but he could kill the messenger. So you suffer until someone else takes responsibility. And that person gets the promotion.

But I digress. There may be times when sending an anonymous message seems like a necessity, in order to save a person from embarrassment or worse. Trouble is, you can never find a consistent line.

Maybe you feel the need to warn a friend about a cheating husband. Ann Landers would tell you to mind your own business. And I agree.

Some people celebrate the Internet for its support of unbridled free expression, how you can speak your mind without retribution. Everyone is equal online, and prejudices can disappear.

Fair enough. But if you want to be anonymous start a blind blog.

Otherwise, be prepared to look your correspondent in the virtual eye when you speak your mind.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.