Anonymity on the internet

An interesting article in The New York Times urges an end to anonymous commenting.

Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.

Ah but if it were so simple. As the author points out, “until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing.” When I first started participating heavily on the internet, anonymity was actively encouraged. You’d get a “handle” to participate in various forums and people “recognized” that handle as you moved from one forum to the other. That is still the case in many of the technology forums I visit today.

But it is different commenting about the latest BlackBerry or the latest keyboard than talking about news and politics. I rarely see the same venom expressed in the forums of those sites that I see in the comments of news sites. There’s just something about the anonymity that brings out the worst in people.

While I fully support the new commenting system on the Opinion channel of PilotOnline, I’m not quite ready to implement such a system here. Nor am I willing to moderate all comments. (Of course, I’m not dealing with thousands upon thousands of comments every day, either.) I’ve put a few minor tweaks in place to try to make everyone feel welcome here – and to not overburden myself in the process. In addition, I’m a big fan of group dynamics. I much prefer the commentors police themselves – and you guys do a fine job 🙂  I recognize that some people really have a reason for being pseudonymous and, as long as the conversation stays civil, I’m OK with that.

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21 thoughts on “Anonymity on the internet

  1. I much prefer self-regulation, and have a sincere worry that we’re on the long slow path to doing away with anonymity-by-choice.

    That said (and as I’ve said), I’m generally happy with newspaper and other big media outlets moving towards some form of commenting that encourages, if not requires, use of real names. Provides for a much better environment, I think.

    1. None of them, Brian? I thought you were Mr. Wizard.

      But seriously, I, too, discount the anonymous comments, particularly if venomous, or I don’t agree with them.

      Not sure I agree fully with the Pilot’s change commenting on Opinions. I agree they shouldn’t be anonymous, but have not yet gotten over having to provide a credit card.

  2. I think anonymous commenters have their place on blogs, although I take their comments less seriously than those of people who attach their names. I’d like to see newspapers and other major content providers, which at this point would include online entities like Slate, Salon and Huffpost, go to a non-anonymous standard.

  3. As long as newspaper and magazine publishers want the free content that anonymous comments provide, I suspect most of them will not soon change their rules.

    Perhaps more annoying than their name-calling, etc., is how anonymous experts get in a huff when someone challenges their expertise. Like, if you don’t know who they are, how dare you question their credentials or motives!

  4. I think the first place we need to start is newspaper editorials. Is the “Times” now signing their editorials? Somewhat hypocritical to encourage taking credit for comments, but yet, you yourself (the Times not Vivian) won’t take credit for its own comments.

    Reminds me of the “regional” push around here, when both the Daily Press and Pilot were pushing for “regionalism” yet, they themselves wouldn’t either compete with each other, or make a “regional” newspaper. Lead by example. Otherwise people don’t take you serious.

  5. If someone is not willing to stand by what they write or say, then they are a coward.

    If they are so fearful that they might face repercussions from something that they want to write, then perhaps they should consider the sacrifices made by our founders, and more recently here in Virginia, men like Robert E. Lee, who lost everything he owned, rather than raise his sword against his fellow Virginians.

    Using your real name, standing by what you write and say; are the American way. To do anything less is an affront to our Republic

    1. I specifically chose Silence Dogood as pen name as a tribute to Benjamin Franklin, who first used it as a nom de plume — and, more generally, to the long tradition of pseudonymous opinions among our more-thoughtful founding fathers.

      …And as an aside, Tyler: dude. My ancestors fought as Virginians during the civil war, and even I’m stunned both by your dragging him into this topic as well as your attempt to frame his “sacrifice” as indicative of “the American way” because he refused to wage war “against his fellow Virginians.” I suppose it’s not “an affront to our Republic” when it’s only Pennsylvanians or New Yorkers at the other end of your artillery fire?

      1. Thanks for that, Viv.

        Robert E. Lee, lived an exemplary life. If a lesser man had been offered command of the Army that was to invade the South, most would have jumped at the opportunity to further their own career.

        General Lee, served Virginia first. One aspect of the War for Southern Independence that is so often lost on Yankees, is that the CSA was a separate country, both under international law and in the hearts and minds of those who seceded. So, the Union forces were not, “putting down rebellion, or bringing the union together” as was often printed by the propagandists of those days, but the Union forces were an invading army that, when given no resistance, was notorious for destroying property and murdering civilians in their path.

        Thanks to General Lee, even though Virginia was the scene of many battles, our citizens and our property were spared much of the carnage experienced in poorly defended areas, such as Georgia.

        Of course the other aspect that confirms the heroism of General Lee, is that he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant, rather than resorting to a guerrilla war (reportedly called for by Jefferson Davis, but most likely came from Judah Benjamin, who by the way was the first Jewish Vice President, Secretary of War/State of any nation at that time.) Most historians agree that a guerrilla action would have dragged on for as much as a decade, and would have left America ripe for invasion or take-over by foreign powers.

        In retrospect, things worked out as well as could be expected given the ferocity of combat between the two governments. If you read about the surrender at Appomattox, it becomes fairly obvious that the basic civility between the two generals, Lee and Grant, and the rather generous terms provided by General Grant, played a key role in General Lee’s decision to surrender at that point; essentially ending the major potion of the war. Thank God, that the decision was made against a guerrilla campaign.

        For these and many other reasons, General Lee is a true hero, regardless of which side of the war people of today identify with.

    2. A few people sometimes attempt to use the example of the Federalist Papers in order to justify hiding behind pseudonyms.

      If you recall, the speculation about the people behind the fake names, (including Hamilton and Jefferson) created quite a stir and that had they published their opinions under their own names, much of the spin-off scandals could have been avoided.

      While it is true that the Federalist Papers are an example of the USE of pseudonyms, most would conclude that the lesson from that example is that standing by what you write, rather than hiding behind a fake name is the better course, in all cases.

      Furthermore, if men like, Alexander Hamilton had not engaged in so much intrigue, using fake names and with other forms of baiting others, I rather doubt that his differences with Aaron Burr would have reached such a horrible end. Had Hamilton aired his views in his own name, there is little doubt that he would have been more widely known as the Monarchist that he was, but he would have also lived a long and productive life; adding to his substantial contributions to our government and our American society.

      One key benefit of actually standing by what one writes is that a certain level of civility is established; especially here in Virginia, where Democrats and Republicans can actually be seen in church and out at social functions together.

      1. The other reason for writing anonymously, as did many of our founding fathers, is to allow the argument to succeed or fail on its own, without benefit or hindrance of the reputation of the person making the argument.

        1. That might work if you just left the comment anonymous, but the use of pseudonyms today is just a facade, from behind which cowards hurl their slander.

          If President Obama puts forth a stinker of an idea, there will be those who will always speak against it or for it based on their partisan ways, however, most Virginians, and probably most Americans are willing to hear ideas based on their merit, without regard to the messenger.

          My key point is that by having a citizen put his name along with what is written, then a level of civility will be promoted, and there will be more efforts to demonstrate good manners in dealing with opposing views.

          Take posts by John Young, Howie Lind and rick Sincere as examples. Although I sometimes am on opposite ends of issues with these men, yet we maintain a civil and even friendly relationship, via our correspondence. The same shall, no doubt, be true should we meet at some public event.

          If, in some rare case, some citizen feared real harm if they used their name in regard to a whistle-blower type of report, I would have to empathize with their position, but our fellow citizens would have to still condemn such cowardice.

          Our nation was built on the fact that brave men stood-up for what is right, and stood firm to deal with any consequences of their position. Certainly it is true that some have in our nation’s past published under false names or without names on their commentary, at all. But, that path is always fraught with unnecessary intrigue, and the lessons of history are clear; honesty and forthrightness, are always the best policy.

  6. Well, I don’t know that you can ever truly be anonymous on the internet.

    My feeling about it though is that corporate America is rather political. And why make it easy for your employer to ferret out a view you would not express at work. I see that some other commentors scoff at the notion of anonymity. But from my view, these discussions really have no relation to the work that I do or the mission of my employer. And from a polite conversation perspective, you don’t really bring up contentious things like politics or religion. Maybe I am paranoid.

    And besides all that, what does knowing someone’s name get you? People can be positively rude using their real identities, witness the comments on the Washington Post or drivers on I-395.

    Last, growing up with BBSes and IRC, I’m used to this format. This being an abstraction, a handle seems most appropriate. It feels odd to use someone’s real name as if we are familiar when we are not.

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