I am posting a recent editorial from the Newark Star Ledger on the fraudulence of online anonymity. I don’t share the writer’s viewpoint that the online responder has an obligation to identify him or herself but I respect his opinion.
I enjoy the comments at the end of a news article almost as much as the article itself. But I don’t need to know the names of commenters. I am interested in their opinions – and some of them are quite clever and well-thought out.
How many writers will attach their names to a forum comment when they know that their neighbors are generally judgmental and happy to gossip about everyone? I had this conversation today with a friend who is quite outspoken and who has been known to sign her name to letters to the editor. But she admits that, these days, she considers her professional reputation before posting comments under her own name.
The anonymous commenter isn’t immune to attacks and insults from trolls and other troublemakers. I find it amusing when I am attacked by anonymous responders when I post in a forum. They don’t know (but they “think” they know) who they are insulting. How can I feel insulted if I don’t know them?
One of these days, I may reveal my true identity. But sometimes I think that I’m the only one who cares about it.
The fraudulence of online anonymity: Opinion
By Star-Ledger Guest ColumnistThe Star-Ledger
on June 30, 2013 at 5:23 AM, updated June 30, 2013 at 5:24 AM
By Gary C. Woodward
Pick a polarizing subject in our national life, tie it to a news story and then take your own tour of the rough music that passes for online comment. It’s a dispiriting side trip.
The migration of news and opinion to the internet has made it possible for virtually anyone to pass on his first and often intemperate reactions to news stories, opinions and other forms of public discussion. Responding requires only a simple digital device and a reactive instinct that usually plays out as an oppositional style.
The problem is that online comments are mostly anonymous. The pseudonyms that now dominate seem like the avatars of souls who lack the confidence to be full partners-in-dialogue with others.
As a culture we seem to be forgetting that attaching names to opinions is part of living in a civil society. It’s a fraudulent kind of rhetoric that keeps sources in the shadows. Commenting on the behavior or opinions of named individuals in unnamed responses is at least a small act of subterfuge. While subjecting others to the burdens of coherent criticism, writers who abandon their identity absolve themselves of the same standard.
Even for straightforward news reporting, multitudes seem to lie in wait to correct the record. A journalist reports the known facts involving the suicide of a teenager. We need read only a few offhand “comments” attached to a story about the death of someone’s troubled teen to witness the violation of a fragile space where strangers don’t belong.
There’s good reason we retain an American demonology for the likes of secret police, postwar Hollywood witch hunts and hidden cameras. If a person makes an accusation, a reader of online material should be able to know the accuser’s identity.
What’s in a name? More than we might first assume. Even if it’s not well-known, affirming it is an elemental expression of our integrity. Our names are the clearest tokens of our personhood that we possess.
As a culture we seem to be forgetting that attaching names to opinions is part of living in a civil society.
To be sure, there are circumstances when revealing a person’s identity might result in his inability to work, or even his death warrant. But too often the clandestine responses we must endure exhibit a kind of free-floating rage. Typical is the jaw-dropping scorn of respondents who seem intent on dismissing rather than engaging others. Add in a certain number of “trolls” who fire off repeated rounds of venom simply to provoke, and we’ve defined a corner of our public rhetoric that grows darker every time the light of authentic authorship recedes.
At its worst, this is the territory of the unqualified conclusion and the fantasized conspiracy: often a stream-of-consciousness unburdening of personal demons unchecked by the kind of self-monitoring individuals usually do in the presence of others.
In his 2010 book “You Are Not a Gadget” internet pioneer Jaron Lanier notes that “an impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship.” Because it’s a system defined by the vastness of interconnecting networks, a “hive mentality” of frenetic sampling effectively plays down the uniqueness of an individual perspective.
Information is aggregated and sources are slighted. Material from one author blends into another. Content is registered and defined in files that are merged and merged again. As with Wikipedia, “data” are primary; and sources are mostly unknown.
This is partly the result of an active culture of libertarianism that flourishes within the community of internet technologists. Many seek solutions to the torn fabric of our civil life by pushing better forms of “connectivity.”
The problem is that connectivity is not communication. To merge the two is to confuse relatively stable media “platforms” with more variable capacities of individuals for insight. Our current bias toward connectivity encourages us to miss raising critical questions about a source’s compassion and competence.
We need the assurance of a respondent’s name to help make essential judgments about the value of their ideas. As it is, the anonymous and wounding responses of online discourse make a mockery of the familiar slogan that the “internet wants to be free.” If freedom means anything, it must include a sense of personal obligation for the opinions we express.
Gary C. Woodward is most recently the author of “The Perfect Response” (Lexington Books, 2010) and “The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs” to be published this fall. He is a professor of communication studies at the College of New Jersey.