Internet Pseudonymity Redux
Tom Grubisich, a former WaPo editor and reporter who now writes for Online Journalism Review, laments that discussions on online forums like blog and newspaper comments sections are coarsened by the calling of vile names, hate-mongering, and other activity enabled by anonymity. He argues that we would not take people appearing at town hall meetings very seriously were they to show up with paper bags over their heads, so why should the Internet be any different?
He proposes that site owners require detailed registration, including obtaining and verifying phone numbers, to force commenters to be more responsible. He would allow for pseudonymity only for whistle blowers and other special cases where there the need to protect privacy outweighs consideration of civility. Even there, though, the site owner should know and verify the poster’s identity but pledge to shield it.
The quasi-pseudonymous* Big Tent Democrat thinks this a “laughably stupid” scheme of “a person who simply does not understand the way blogging works.”
He observes that, “Pseudonymity allows real people to post their thoughts without fear of real world repercussions” and reasonably points out that people might have legitimate concerns as to whether site owners would keep their information confidential. Further, he argues that site hosts can take care of profanity, personal attacks, and otherwise enforce their standards of civility through comment moderation.
Indeed, that’s what I do at OTB. Several of my regular commenters are pseudonymous for various reasons and yet manage to engage in thoughtful discussions.
Still, Grubisich’s premise is not absurd. Writing under one’s own name does tend to have a moderating effect on one’s discourse and anonymity does free people from the “real world repercussions” of bad behavior. It also masks potential conflicts of interest and hidden agendas.
At the same time, many people, including serving military, intelligence, or diplomatic officers, are not free to express political views under their own name. People work under supervisors who have radically different ideologies than their own. Firms that must constantly recruit new clients often have strong restrictions on employee self-expression under the not-unreasonable assumption that allowing free reign might alienate potential business partners. Writing under a name that is obviously female or Asian or Hispanic or Muslim may well yield vitriolic ad hominem responses that limit one’s ability to engage in rational discussion.
So, while Grubish’s concerns are reasonable, his solution would likely hinder informed discussion more than it would help. To the extent that Internet discussion forums can be vitriol-free zones (or, indeed, depending on one’s tastes, to which that is desirable) it’s likely to be accomplished by diligent moderation and a thoughtful user community that refuses to feed the trolls.
Unfortunately, online boorishness is as hard to defeat as an insurgency, for many of the same reasons. Building up is much harder than tearing down and repairing damage is harder than inflicting it. And the time and effort required to moderate comments often lead to sites either shutting down comments altogether or giving up and allowing anarchy.
*He’s not trying much harder to hide his real identity now than when he was blogging under a previous pseudonym.