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2HRS2GO: The perils of message board anonymity

You think you know me.

Of course, you don't, not even with my name and not-very-photogenic mug perched above the headline. Besides, how do you know that's really me? You don't.

But at least it's something. Hopefully a professional organization like ZDNet wouldn't lie.



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On the other hand, when you hit the stock message boards at Yahoo! Finance, Silicon Investor or Raging Bull, (token ticker symbols for their respective parents: YHOO, CMGI, GNET) you really have absolutely no idea who's posting, or what their agenda might be.

I've said many times that those things don't matter. It's up to the reader to make their own judgments about the content. Being a short-seller doesn't mean you're lying, being long on a stock doesn't mean you're telling the truth, and vice versa.

But other people seem to think identities and motivations matter. Thus we have this laughable Aquacool_2000 flap.

The person wielding the moniker Aquacool_2000 first appeared Oct. 21 as Msg #1276 on Yahoo! Finance's board for AnswerThink (Nasdaq: ANSR), a consulting firm specializing in the Internet.

From the start, Aquacool_2000 established himself -- I'm using the male pronoun for convenience, but Aquacool could be a computer-generated hologram of a hermaphrodite for all I know -- as a bitter, abrasive type:

"The management of this company is a joke. Just because you sucker some VCs to back you and then ride the IPO wave doesn't mean that you know how to steer a ship blah yadda yap yap...."

Aquacool went on to post 29 more times over the next five months. Other posters accused him of being a disguised short.

He wasn't. Aquacool was an employee and shareholder of AnswerThink. He says he didn't trade any ANSR stock during the time he posted on the Yahoo! Finance board.

(Note to message board inhabitants: Dedicated shorts usually don't bother posting to you. They short a stock because they think it's due for a nosedive without any prompting. At most, they're quoted -- usually anonymously -- by someone like TheStreet.com's Herb Greenberg.)

AnswerThink didn't like what Aquacool and 11 others had to say. The company in February filed a "John Doe" lawsuit in a Florida federal court and subpoenaed Yahoo! for information about the defendants, including their names.

Aquacool's court papers say Yahoo! turned over his information to AnswerThink without notifying him or giving him a chance to respond to the company's demand. AnswerThink on March 30 fired Aquacool and, he says, denied him a cash payment owed and shares that were scheduled to vest.

Now he's suing Yahoo! and accusing the Web portal of violating its promise to protect users' privacy.

I imagine it's not a very humorous situation for the parties involved, but it ought to amuse outsiders, because on all sides, you have to wonder: What were they thinking?

For AnswerThink: Don't you have anything better to do than read message boards? Talk about creating your own distractions -- how about just running your company? It's almost enough to make someone think that Aquacool has a point about management. This certainly doesn't help the stock price.

For Yahoo!: Is it really too much to give your posters a chance to defend themselves? If you put up a forum for anonymity, the least you could do is try to let them stay that way.

For Aquacool: You go out of your way to criticize your employer as a badly-managed operation, spend your time spewing on a message board instead of working on something productive, do it under a pseudonym and then express outrage about the company denying you payment? What planet do you live on?

Because of the collective lack of thought from all parties, affairs have landed in court, someone is out of a AnswerThink job and privacy groups are up in arms.

And over what? A series of unimaginative insults from someone without the brass to back it up with his real name -- Aquacool says he has criticized AnswerThink openly, yet he refuses to identify himself in his own lawsuit -- directed toward executives without the grace to let it all slide.

It doesn't reflect well on anyone involved, but that's the world of anonymous messages. Speaking of which, don't forget our Talkbacks... 22GO

• 2HRS2GO: Message board growth catches Feds' eye>