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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Anonymity on the internet - Farhad Manjoo puts the case against

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo puts the case to do away with anonymous comments on the internet. His argument is essentially that there will be a massive increase in the quality of comments if people are forced to take responsibility for them. Read the entire post, because he develops this theme in quite impressive detail.

That doesn't mean I agree - at the end of the day, I do think there's a place for anonymous interaction. Many people would be deterred from putting unpopular opinions, or even discussing unpopular subjects, if their participation was available to be searched online by actual and potential employers, family members, potential lovers, educational institutions, and who knows who else. While it might work for Slate to insist on people revealing their real identities, it's not something that I'd want to insist on here, or something that I'd like to see insisted upon routinely by blogs, message boards, and the like.

Nonetheless, anonymity can be abused. We saw plenty of that in recent times, with the Tom Johnson/You're Not Helping saga, and it happens every day. Even without blatant abuses such as sockpuppeting, identity faking, and the like, we often see people behaving with a degree of hostility and anger that goes far beyond satire and snark. Personally, I'd rather, where convenient, comment under my own name. I think it good to take public responsibility for my words. That might not apply to all possible topics in all possible forums - even over at Wikipedia I don't normally use my real name if I edit an article (though in this case it's not hard to track me down).

I do, of course, appreciate that I'm far better placed than most people to get by without the need for anonymity. Within quite broad limits I can get away with saying very controversial things without suffering for it - this is almost expected of someone whose public presence is as a writer and a philosopher - and in recent years I've reached a point where, although I'm far from rich, I can live a comfortable life with some little luxuries without having to worry about falling into poverty. To be sure, I could do with funding for purposes such as travel, to get out my message, blah, blah ... but I don't need to worry about actual bosses and employers. Not many people are in that position unless they're fully retired.

I totally understand that commenters here, or many of them, really do need anonymity/pseudonymity as a protection. But it's also true that anonymous commenting can have a downside, even if it's not actually abused.

What do you think of Manjoo's piece, and this issue more generally?

H/T Tauriq Moosa.


DEEN said...

Manjoo sucks! ;)

Seriously though, a few comments. Manjoo writes:
"In all but the most extreme scenarios—everywhere outside of repressive governments—anonymity damages online communities."
The problem here, of course, is who gets to decide which societies are too oppressive, and which aren't? Gays or atheists living in the Bible Belt may feel quite differently about how oppressive their society is than their Christian neighbors. And even if our current society would be not oppressive at all, if we ban anonymous commentary, where are we to complain if society is becoming more oppressive?

"You're responding to an author who made his identity known, and your purpose, in posting the comment, is to inform the world of your point of view."
First, the original author may also be pseudonymous. Second, the validity of my views should be independent of my identity. Nor is it necessarily my goal to promote myself along with my view - maybe I even want my view to stand all on its own, rather than getting into debates about qualifications, etc.

I also don't understand his fixation on Facebook as a solution. Has he seen the trolling that goes on on Facebook itself? Does he really think that Facebook pages can't be faked? And that the most obnoxious trolls won't go through the effort to do so? And he'd still receive those emails he was complaining about at the start of his article.

Which brings me to the final point. The fuckwads exist. Their opinions are out there, and are held by many, even if it is in secret. What is really gained by hiding these facts? When did the world get better by hiding its ugly bits?

OK, one more quote:
"I'll take sterile and neutered over vulgar, stupid, irrelevant, sexist, racist, false, and defamatory any day."
First, false dichotomy. Second, he can't be serious that banning anonymous comments would do much against the latter category. Glenn Beck isn't anonymous, is he?

March Hare said...

I am appalled by this article.

Ignoring the obviousness of an anonymous commenter being against the removal of anonymity, I think he fails to make a solid case.

His main point is that it reduces spam and increases civility. Which is true to a point, however I can easily see a hacking group getting together to generate anonymous spam/comments in protest so his utopia would be short lived.

Th argument for privacy is much stronger. Take myself as an example, I am (relatively) polite yet opinionated both online and in real life and an expert(ish) in a few limited fields. I do like to engage people who know more than me on certain topics and when I post my amateur opinion and take the intellectual beating that I deserve, I try to learn from it and improve. If it was ME rather than March Hare that was taking the intellectual pounding I'd probably shut up and never learn why I am wrong.

Could I argue with a biology major about evolution (somehow he thought it had a direction!?) if I was posting as ME? Would I have the balls to disagree about philosophy or morality with a published philosophy professor (Jean K) as a mere economics grad?

Another reason is that if it's me posting my ignorance then the internet is permanent, who wants to be reminded of the stupid things they've said when young and/or drunk?

However, his argument dies with the following statement:

"This introduces to the Web one of the most important offline rules for etiquette: Don't say anything that you'd be ashamed to say in front of your mom."

This is the line that authoritarians use when they want to introduce some draconian crackdown on civil liberties.

I have no respect for someone who thinks like this.

thephilosophicalprimate said...

There's a better solution to poor discussion quality than doing away with anonymity.

Well, anyway, one can hope there's a better solution.

Come to think of it, Randall Munroe imagined a better solution. If only it could be put into practice.

Anonymous said...

If the subject is controversial, then people who comment on it will need anonymity to protect them against unwanted consequences (from bosses, spouses, etc.). And if the subject is not controversial, then it's just boring, and not worth the time to comment on.

(Or is that a false dichotomy? ;)

What Manjoo states is really a false dichotomy: either pure anonimity or real names. The actual problem with abusive commenting is that all comments carry the same weight, whether they come from an account that was created 5 minutes ago, or from an account that has a track record of 10 years of constructive commenting. We may need an equivalent of Google's PageRank algorithm, applied to web identities. (Although even Google's geniuses periodically need to modify PageRank, to stay ahead of hackers.)

Talking about hackers: I'm more or less execting a comment on Slate, stating something like "Manjoo sucks!"... posted from Manjoo's own FaceBook account.

DEEN said...

@March Hare:
"Another reason is that if it's me posting my ignorance then the internet is permanent, who wants to be reminded of the stupid things they've said when young and/or drunk?"
I think that's kind of Manjoo's point: he hopes that with that risk, you'll think twice before you say something stupid.

Of course, you don't have to give up your privacy for this effect to work. You can get the same effect simply by using a consistent pseudonym, and trying to build and maintain a reputation under that name.

March Hare said...

@DEEN the point is that when young and stupid you THINK you're right, so you won't hold back on giving your opinion regardless. Now you might use more invective if you think you're anonymous, but you will still make the same fundamental argument.

If it later turns out that argument was wrong, or you simply change your mind, then there is no way to stop that being associated with your name.

I hold some exceedingly libertarian positions regarding socially taboo issues and since I think they're logically coherent positions I don't mind debating them, anonymously. However, you force me to put my name to them and suddenly I am out there as someone who defends consensual incest? Not that I have a sibling, but if I did suddenly people are looking at them differently. That's not fair.

I happen to think polygamy is not for me (I am actually against all state-approved marriage) but I am more than happy to argue the rights of others to do it. Should that be associated with my real name any prospective partners suddenly see me in a different light.

No, we need anonymity to protect freedom of speech. Arguments stand or fall on their merit, but if the argument cannot be made then we're back to the Emperor's New Clothes.

Svlad Cjelli said...

I think we might see a general decrease in comments, if we're lucky centering on comments of low quality, but more likely centering on comments of low blandness.

We would not, I believe, see a larger amount of high-quality comments. As for comments that were not of a high quality yet were not eliminated, I don't suspect that their individual quality would be much affected.
They could be, if they are currently in a way contaminated, or dragged down, by comments of lower quality.

Dave Ricks said...

A newspaper may publish a letter to the editor with "name withheld by request". Of course the newspaper verifies the identity privately — so this is not exactly "anonymous" — but the identity is protected from public view (from future employers, etc.). I worry that Farhad Manjoo is against that arrangement:

You're responding to an author who made his identity known, and your purpose, in posting the comment, is to inform the world of your point of view. If you want to do something so public, you are naturally ceding some measure of your privacy. If you're not happy with that trade, don't take part — keep your views to yourself.

In his Utopia:

I hope every site on the Web adopts Facebook’s comment system.

Wow. Not just the technology sites, but every site? I suppose he knows infinitely more than I do about alternative communities on the Web.

We should also be aware that once our personal information is on the Internet — for the rest of our lives — someone may spend their time searching for the "worst" things we ever said, so they can make the most negative judgments against us — e.g., this compilation:


Not to single that guy out, it's just an example at hand. I'm saying that's part of human nature — we want to be right, so we make others wrong. I try to rise above it. One day at a time.