Detrolling anonymity

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.

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10 thoughts on “Detrolling anonymity

  1. Another classic, Bob! I worked for newspapers that had similar “Speak Out” sections. We called ours “The Vent.” What made the difference really was knowing an editor was going to look through all the posts. I think we need more editorial oversight on the Internet, but not necessarily less anonymity.

    The other issue I see with the post, and with most thinking about online anonymity, is anonymity = assholery, as you so cleverly put it. I disagree. I think assholes are the vast minority of anonymous posters. In fact, I think posters who want to remain anonymous are the minority. I don’t think the switch to a transparent Web 3.0 will be that controversial.

    • I wouldn’t go so far as to say anonymity = assholery, Hans, but it (along with the presence of an audience) sure does facilitate it (here’s another one of my favorites – why does every argument I find compelling seem to hinge on profanity?).

      I think Wong’s ideas about armed moderators, with weapons that go beyond the mighty but simple Banhammer, and added privileges of registration, make a lot of sense. The kind of transparency I’d like to see isn’t necessarily your birth certificate name, it would just be SOME consistent identity. I’d see that kind of accountability as a sign that the Internet has grown up.

  2. Love it, Bob, and just Tweeted it 😉

    I had never really thought about how the “powers that be” may be invested in ending anonymity too – interesting. Kind of annoying as I’d always thought of transparency as a “fighting the man” kind of thing. Heh.

    I think there is a case to be made that sometimes anonymity protects the powerless, but those tend to be few and far between – and as our culture gradually becomes more and more open, I think that people will see less of a need to hide their every foible.

    For news organizations, I don’t think it’s possible for them to entirely eliminate anonymity in comments and the like, but I think they could, and I wish they would, take strong steps to encourage it. For example, a “verified account” would get prominent placement in comments, for example.

    Also Hans has an interesting point. I tend to agree that it’s a minority – but it’s a very vocal minority, and the perception out there is that most comments sections are nasty places – something more aggressive should be done by editors.

    • Those are two good points about opinion minorities, Carrie: They need to be protected, and it’s really a (different) minority that’s the problem. That’s one reason why I find the anti-anonymity argument (that’s a mouthful!) somewhat reasonable: The latter is making it harder for the former (and perhaps shouting down some of them). I like the idea that we can all have our opinions heard now, but I also think that with that power should come responsibility, the bare minimum of which is accountability.

  3. Adding an identity would prove interesting to websites, particularly forums where outlandish things are said like on Something Awful or 4chan.

    Also, 3.0, Dannnnnggg. Already?!

    • I can’t speak for 4chan because I can never hold my nose long enough to stay that long, but Something Awful is actually a pretty good model for this. Registration is required to post, and commenters are held to a standard for their talk – not only by moderators, but by the community themselves. Deadspin is another case – anyone can comment, but the good ones earn a star, and starred comments are the ones that show up by default (you can click “view all,” but it’s never worth it).

      My grad assistant, Rachel, is doing some work on this idea of community policing in comment boards (and, in what may be a first, using Encyclopedia Dramatica as a semi-scholarly reference). What she’s finding is “flavors” of the act of policing by forum members. Hopefully the research can tell us something more about how this kind of interaction works (and COULD work).

  4. I’d add another reason to your list. At some point, our use of Web 2.0 will grow past the adolescent stage. We’re still in a young stage of development with the Web where you’re still trying out all you can do with it, good or ill. So we’re still in that “boy-reaches-puberty” part where jackass stunts on YouTube are the first thing that comes to mind.

    Pretty soon we get bored with that stuff and grow up a little. Sure, we might troll a little, but we’ve learned that it comes at the expense of doing something interesting with the Web.

    It *feels* like we’ve had social media forever, but we’re still feeling our way through this stuff. And in the process we’re creating a ton of noise in the mediascape; eventually we’ll want ways to either cut down on that, or cut through it. Either way, anonymity is the first target.

    Vibrant communities at Slashdot or DailyKos have figured out ways to bury trolls. I’d argue what’s going on at those places is more meaningful than a lot of web communities because everything said has a name, even if it’s just a handle.

    To extend your wild west analogy, the communities that don’t evolve out of lawless behavior will become ghost towns. The far more interesting stuff is happening in places where you have an identity.

    • The puberty analogy really makes a lot of sense as far as I’m concerned, Jeremy. I don’t think this is what you’re saying, but I hope this doesn’t come across as saying the Internet way of doing things (hyperlinking, referencing, conversation-via-aggregation) is itself inherently childish. If the online world sobers up and starts acting like Old Media, we’ve lost what was new and useful about it. Again, I don’t think this is what YOU’RE saying, but your saying it made me think of this.

      You’re quite right that our perception of how long we’ve had social media can get a bit warped. The kind of policing that is springing out of communities like Slashdot AND Something Awful is interesting because it has grown from the ground instead of being implemented from on high. I keep using this word “policing,” but I don’t mean “police state” by it. Instead, I’d like to hope it’s something more like the Tragedy of the Commons, where if individuals work to make the kind of community they want to live in, they’ll get the kind of blasted landscape that no one can inhabit.

      (Quick note: In Zack Parson’s “Your Next-door Neighbor is a Dragon,” he calls the current crop of 30-40 year olds “The Greatest Generation” on account of they’re the ones who grew up without the Internet yet were still young when they learned to use it. Thus, he says, they’re indispensable to the future world because they’ll be the ones to translate young doctors/lawyers/professionals Newspeak to their aging parents. Maybe it’s a little half-baked, but it’s nice to feel important.)

      • Heh, the analogy I was thinking of instead of childish was a teenage boy vs. an adult male fumbling for the bra clasp. The goal is still the same, but one happens in the backseat of a car and the other happens in less awkward settings. But I couldn’t get the cadence right on that one without getting troll-rated myself …

        So when I mean we grow up, it doesn’t change *how* we use it so much as the road we take. And maybe that means less being a troll as the community evolves. I like your point about how it has to come from the community on up; those basic elements of trust and working together are no different online than in real life. Troll-rating is the new attending PTA meetings. Take that, Putnam!

        OK, I’ll stop. This is starting to sound like my dissertation, and that doesn’t belong on a blog about comics and beer.

      • I know there was no Facebook when Bowling Alone was written, but I would have liked that book so much more if it hadn’t essentially pretended that the Internet didn’t exist. It seemed to provide an inconvenient speedbump to Putnam’s “The Greatest Generation sure was great!” hypothesis, so off to the margins with you! (although I hear he recanted later on)

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