Anonymous Rex, Ctd.

From an op-ed at the New York Times:

Facebook also encourages you to share your comments with your friends. Though you’re free to opt out, the knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior.

This kind of social pressure works because, at the end of the day, most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.

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.

It’s written by Julie Zhuo at Facebook. I’ll be honest in saying that my initial reaction sounded something like this, “Fascinating. Facebook wishes to advocate for more online accountability. Privacy much?” She finishes the article with a line intoning that by lifting the veil of anonymity we can see that we are all human.

I don’t think she could have missed the point any more than she did in this nice but misguided editorial piece. The problem is not anonymity, it’s about civility. Mrs. Zhuo’s post seeks to lump all anonymous comments and replies into one giant guilty pile. That’s extreme in its scope and unreasonable in its criteria.

Anonymous authorship is the second amendment issue of free expression. Just as there are many gun owners who are responsible law abiding citizens, there are many well spoken and articulate people who write anonymously online. For every crime committed by a gun, there is a standard hue and outcry about how gun are awful, horrible things that no one should have. This ignores the staggering volume of non-incidents that occur with or around guns each and every day. One could draw the same parallel to trolls and other acts of anonymous uncivil posts that go on every day versus the majority of perfectly reasonable and rational anonymous comments and postings.

It is all in the perception of the issue. You will always see a news story about gun violence and online stories about people engaged in trolling behavior. You will never or seldom see a story about a responsible gun owner teaching respect for firearms or gun safety and stories about people who have perfectly normal anonymous discussions. The focus is skewed toward the salacious and tawdry side of the issue about how bad it can be, how bad people act, and the rare acts of awfulness that cross the lines of social norms. Where is the data to support this position before requesting that every content provider eliminate anonymity in the name of accountability?

In my reckoning, the anonymous posting is just a symptom of overall societal incivility and the polarization of speech at present. It is a matter of re-asserting and re-establishing a courtesy for the views and opinions of others. It is a matter of respecting the free expression of another person. It doesn’t matter whether they are anonymous or not; what matters is the appreciation of differing viewpoints.

(I talked about anonymous authorship recently in my post “Anonymous Rex”, a response to Emily Ford’s post “X” at In The Library With The Lead Pipe.)

10 thoughts on “Anonymous Rex, Ctd.

  1. Andy you said

    “Anonymous authorship is the second amendment issue of free expression”

    Don’t confuse the right to anonymity with a right to a free platform or an audience. You are free to create your own site anonymously however I’m not required to allow you to comment on my blog anonymously. *

    I blogged about anonymity some time ago and I haven’t changed my opinion or stance – it brings out the worst in people. Sure people were able to point to an example here and there of good but they are few and far between.

    For the record I don’t think Facebook is the solution nor is government regulation, but I think its good that people are discussing this.

    I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV

    • Bobbi, I see anonymity and the platforms as being mutually exclusive. It’s the “my sandbox, my rules” sort of deal. For Facebook, a company that sells user information to champion the idea that we shouldn’t encourage anonymous discussion is just asinine. I think anonymous expression is getting a bad rap, but I know how you feel about it so I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you otherwise.

      I allow anonymous comments on my blog. I see people with bogus emails. But rarely do I get a troll compared to other anonymous or pseudonymous comments. I just let those comments through anyway because other readers have taken them up on it. And they don’t return (or haven’t so far).

  2. I hate the fact anonymous posts are not completely anonymous. For most blogs, one has to submit her/her email in order to comment. Once some provider acquires my email, it’s is all down hill from there.

  3. Andy, anonymity is fine for honestly expressing a point of view on an issue. It is especially fine if it protects the writer from reprisals at work. It is not fine if it is used to personally attack someone. Then it is cowardly and mean. Actually it’s pretty simple. Attacking issues…yes! Attacking people….no!

    • Absolutely. I’ve said before that anonymous or pseudonymous content can be judged on its face. And based on your example, that’s as good a criteria as any.

  4. It seems to me that Ms. Zhuo’s editorial is right in line with Facebook’s ideal of living our lives publicly. She seems to believe that the more open we are about our true identity, the better choices we will make online. It’s strange that we still need to talk about this because it seems newspapers figured out long ago that they would only publish signed letters to the editor, and they wouldn’t use anonymous sources unless first verified.

    The real reason I wanted to comment though is to suggest reading Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget.” In it he tackles the idea of anonymity on a philosophical level, indeed arguing that it robs us of our humanity. Perhaps when we are robbed of our humanity it becomes difficult to act humanely. There is a place for anonymity, but I wouldn’t include the comments section in that sphere.

  5. Pingback: Thoughts on anonymous internet commenting, riffing on @wawoodworth

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