Anonymity and the Self-Righteous Internet

22 Jan ’06

Today a darker side of the Internet is on my mind – this morning I’ve read unrelated pieces from two well-known journalists, each writing in their own way about the lack of civility that the anonymous internet has unleashed upon us. I’m a fan of anonymity – in most contexts – but sometimes I wonder whether the freedom to be your worst in front of the entire world is necessarily a good thing. In any event, on to the meme.

First, from Deborah Howell, the WaPo ombud who recently wrote that lobbyist Jack Abramoff had given money to members of Congress from both parties (it seems he hadn’t given to Democrats, but had directed others to – a difference that has been hotly debated online), and suffered a storm of protest as a result (a storm that was behind WaPo’s recent decision to shut down comments on its blog):

I wrote that he gave campaign money to both parties and their members of Congress. He didn’t. I should have said he directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

My mistake set off a firestorm. I heard that I was lying, that Democrats never got a penny of Abramoff-tainted money, that I was trying to say it was a bipartisan scandal, as some Republicans claim. I didn’t say that. It’s not a bipartisan scandal; it’s a Republican scandal, and that’s why the Republicans are scurrying around trying to enact lobbying reforms.

Second, from David Pogue of the NYT, who wrote about life as a product reviewer, and his experiences with critics who use anonymity to (often, mistakenly) drop bombs on him and then run for cover:

THEREFORE let us now post the rules for membership in the Pills of the American Internet Neighborhood Society.

1. Use the strongest language possible. Calling names is always effective, and four-letter words show that you mean business.

7. If the writer responds to your e-mail with evidence that you’re wrong (for example, by citing a paragraph that you overlooked), disappear without responding. This is the anonymous Internet; slipping away without consequence or civility is your privilege.

8. Trolling is making a deliberately inflammatory remark, one that you know perfectly well is baloney, just to get a rise out of other people. Trolling is an art. Trolling works just fine for an audience of one (say, a journalist), but of course the real fun is trolling on public bulletin boards where you can get dozens of people screaming at you simultaneously. Comments on religion, politics or Mac-vs.-Windows are always good bets. The talented troll sits back to enjoy the fireworks with a smirk, and never, ever responds to the responses.

And of course these articles follow the LA Times Wikitorial fiasco by only a few months.

I doubt this will ever change. Anyone who’s ever had an unpleasant experience with someone else’s road rage understands what anonymity does to the public behaviour of otherwise (presumably) sensible people. I think it’s more a question of developing the thicker skin required for the livelier and more intense level of discourse in the new public market of ideas. But, in addition to creating toxicity online, the growing volume of this useless background chatter is now also making it more difficult to find relevant information online. We need search technologies that will filter it more effectively – perhaps the time is right for a ‘no flamewar’ or ‘no angry young men’ setting on Google.

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