Back in Corry, PA, where I grew up, the local paper used to have a weekly feature called “Speak Out” (later “Opinion Line”). Here’s how it worked. Somebody got angry about something and called in to the newspaper. If they could keep themselves from outright profanity, their gripe went into the paper.
Sound fine? Here’s the thing: Every comment was anonymous, and no visible fact-checking was done (I’d like to think they put the kibosh on outright lies, but the Journal wasn’t known for its rigorous sleuthing). Even as a little kid, this seemed a bit wacky.
Maybe you still like the idea of this seemingly democratic approach to two-way newspaper communication, but I tell you Speak Out was a fetid cesspool of shrieking cowards, mewling about everything from lurid fantasies about school board conspiracies (Corry HATES the school system) to their neighbor’s dogs pooping/barking.
It was enough to make me a skeptic about public opinion for a good long time … and yet I became a journalist for some reason. Still, the anonymity of voice online is something that’s always reminded me of Speak Out. But maybe it won’t be that way much longer.
I twittered about this earlier in the week, but it’s continued to bang around in my brain. In November 2008 (yes, that long ago), Cracked (yes, Cracked) put up a piece called 5 Ways to Stop Trolls from Killing the Internet. Writer David Wong (formerly of pointlesswasteoftime.com, which was absorbed into Cracked so no link) predicts that the multiple easy ways the Internet provides to be, well, a jerk has us on the path to an Asshole Apocalypse; “There are ways to solve this crisis, but I’m telling you now, you won’t like some of them.” The article (yes, article) is well worth your time, but here are his points in brief:
1. Develop Anti-Troll Software
2. Start a Posse of Moderators, and Arm Them
3. Unify the Culture
4. Up the Stakes for Membership
5. Pass Some Kind of a Law or Something Ending Anonymous Internet Use
For more detail on posts 1-4, check out the article itself, but the one I found most compelling is the ramblingly titled #5. End anonymous use? That’s unpossible! Wong himself is aware of the issues:
If all else fails–and I suspect it will–this will happen, eventually. And it will simply be the death of what most of us know as the World Wide Web. But of course this is silly, alarmist thinking, right? How can you ever regulate the wild-wild-west Internet?
Bloggers both large and small have grappled with that question. Not only is it hard to police every form of the 31 Flavors of Assholery that is comment culture, a lot of us feel that nagging tug in the backbrain saying, “Hey, do I really want to be shutting people up? Isn’t information, like, supposed to be free, man?” But never mind the how for the moment, here’s why Wong says it’ll happen:
If Web 2.0 was about social networking, Web 3.0 will be about the death of anonymity. You say nobody wants that, but there are three very important and powerful somebodies who do:
1. Copyright holders who want to be able to track pirates;
2. Law enforcement agencies who want to track child predators (don’t forget the Oprah moms demanding the same) and to hunt down hackers;
3. Online advertisers who want to make billions off that 92% of housewives and adults who don’t use social networking for fear of being called a Shitwhale in public.
Yes, it turns out there’s a reason the Wild West didn’t stay wild. The gunslingers loved it, but the other 99% of the world wanted laws and security and highways. And they were the ones with the money.
Christ, we’re on Web 3.0 already? I just got started with the second one. But in my opinion, Wong’s right on about the driving forces behind his predicted death of anonymity. I’d add a few of my own:
4. Online identities are as “real” as flesh and blood ones. When you react to sithlord27’s screaming tirades, you’re reacting to an individual identity – that his name is Barry and he lives with his mother doesn’t change that fact. Early on, we had the idea that an online identity was something you put on, not something you were, but today I think we understand that ALL identities are such put ons – it’s preposterous to give the online ones a free pass.
5. Your online identity will follow you home. Observe the Google mantle of services, where one login gets you into Gmail, Wave, and other places. When I comment on other WordPress blogs, signing my name provides readers with a path to follow me back to my own blog. More integration means more consolidation, which means it’s getting harder to hide.
Losing anonymity might seem scary, but dealing with it can be a nightmare of its own. I don’t think you need to have your real name and home address attached to every word you say online (as you’ll notice in the About Me section), but I do think you should have the guts to attach it to whatever going identity you run with. It’d be an interesting world that looked at posting as an earned right, not a privilege. Besides, sithlord27 needs to be held accountable.