The Anonymous Comment Debate, and Why HuffPo’s Proposed Solution Won’t Work
August 22, 2013 | 12:46 pm
By Joanna Cabot
One of the most controversial stories in today’s Morning Roundup was the news that Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington wants to end anonymous commenting on her site. She explains that the troll problem is getting more aggressive and that people should “stand up for what they say and not ‘hide’ behind anonymity.”
But is it the anonymity that’s the problem? Or is the people, who wrongly give themselves permission to behave differently? And is this belief dissipating now that the Internet becomes more commonplace?
I think that, among “regular” people, it might be.
My mother used to differentiate between “real” friends and “Internet people” when she talked to me about my social life—somehow the Internet folks were’t “real” enough for her liking. And now she has three kids out of four who met their partners online. Heck, even our rabbi used JDate to meet his wife! And sure, you could meet someone online who is not what they self-represented, but you can’t tell me that every person you’d pick up in a bar or meet at a party is telling the truth either! In both situations, online and off, you’ll have a tiny fringe of the population who exploits the terms of the encounter, and a vast majority who behave properly. That’s always been the way the world works.
I think, too, that the younger generation is slowly being scared straight by two converging challenges—online bullying and online discovery. Several high-profile cases have made the news here about teenagers whose tragic suicides were, in part, exacerbated by online bullying. In one case, a tabloid website even discovered the names of the bullies and was on the verge of outing them when the mother of the girl who died personally interceded and asked them not to. Meanwhile, kids are being told that everyone from college admissions officers to future bosses will read what they say online, and so, be careful.
Does this mean we won’t have the occasional troll who stirs things up? No, of course not. But I think that shouldn’t take away the right people have to represent themselves as they choose to. Personally, I am a trusting sort. I do represent myself online in a way I’m proud of, and if my mother read my posts, it wouldn’t bother me. But I also have a last name that is very unique and identifiable, and to me, that is a safety issue. So I have chosen to represent myself online with a carefully chosen “close, but not quite the same” pseudonym. It doesn’t mean I’m hiding something; it means that I don’t want some idiot Googling my name and city and being able to find out where I live. So how is Ariana Huffington going to deal with someone like me? Will she demand a birth certificate before she lets me post on her site?
I think that the likely result of a “crackdown” on real names will be that a percentage of “regular” people will just fade away. They’ll decide it’s not worth the bother, the hassle and the privacy risk, and just engage in other activities instead. So the readership who does choose to respond will be mostly the crazy people anyway, and they’ll flame-war each other, with real names or not, regardless of what the site’s policies are. I think the quality of online debate will drop, precipitously.
The problem is that stupid posts with real names on them are still stupid posts. Requiring identification is never going to solve it. What will solve it is teaching the emerging generation how to conduct themselves, online and off, with decorum and dignity.