Anonymous Commenters: Cowards Or Contributors?

from the often-surprisingly-lucid-for-a-bunch-of-drunks dept

We've had a few discussions here at Techdirt about anonymous commenters, coming down firmly on the side of the anonymous. Tim Geigner's response to Anil Dash's "If Your Website's Full of Assholes, It's Your Fault" turned the tables on the tired trope that anonymity breeds assholishness by stating that if your comment thread is awesome, it's your commenters' "fault." Many other pieces have been written by Mike Masnick, taking on various articles and editorials that claim that anonymity is ruining civil discourse, destroying the internet and (presumably) humanity as we know it in the process. Even in my post comparing trolls to town drunks, I took care to point out that not every anonymous commenter is a loudmouthed troll.

Via Above the Law's daily Non Sequiturs roundup comes a post at What About Paris? (a client-focused legal blog) reiterating site owner JD Hull's arguments against allowing anonymous commenters, namely that most commenters haven't earned the protection that anonymity affords them, using a photo of some French Resistance members to illustrate his point:
The revered French Resistance in action 70 years ago. Today, certainly, these heroes might need to comment and blog anonymously. However, lawyers, shoe store managers, Tulane grad students, accountants, and other country club Charlies haven't earned that privilege.
Hull goes further, equating anonymous commenting with less-than-desirable human traits including (as Techdirt's default anoymous option nods at) cowardice:
Absent compelling reasons, nameless blogosphere participants, in our view, are rarely worth anyone's time, thought, or respect--even when they think and say brilliant things... They are second-class citizens. They say third-rate things. Certainly, they have no incentive to exceed below-average...

It doesn't take much thought or courage to lob one in there when you don't sign your name. Our new digital culture permits a certain accepted wimpiness to masquerade as needed "privacy" and personal "style". But it's a ruse. Most of us can do better than that. Don't buy into nameless blogging and commenting (or participation through pseudonyms) unless it's deserved.
While the wording is harsh, some basic truths underlie Hull's arguments. Anonymity means never being able to take credit for brilliance or be assigned guilt for any written atrocities. As you can clearly see in the weekly funny/insightful comment wrapups, AC's gather a ton of votes in both categories, demonstrating that not every anonymous commenter is using anonymity as a cloaking device for misanthropic behavior. As much as we would love to know who's behind these comments, stripping away the "anonymous coward" option would most likely result in a severe dropoff of overall comment quality.

On the other hand, anonymity is very often used as a layer of protection for those whose comments are the very reason that so many websites have turned to less anonymous options, like Facebook comments or required registration. Without the cover of anonymity, would anyone log in to post something like this recent irredeemable piece of malevolence?

Using the AC option to make statements like this is exactly what Hull is referring to when he uses the word "cowardice." The anonymity afforded to commenters by Masnick's refusal to censor the comment threads in any way (by requiring registration or using a third-party comment system) allows them to operate without fear of reprisal. Making crass statements or baseless personal attacks doesn't require courage or even forethought. All it requires is a keyboard and the will to sink to the lowest level possible.

Back to Hull:
As Walter Lippmann once reminded us, "cowardice" is a strong word, and you don't throw it around. We dislike using it. It implies a certain moral superiority of the user (which the writers of this blog would never claim, and do not wish to achieve). It generally furthers no discussions, and justifiably puts people on the defensive. But that word, unfortunately, may fit here.
Hull references Above the Law, which is now looking to rid itself of anonymous commenters:
Check out the anonymous haters, nameless "experts" and scores of prissy pundits and lemmings who won't sign their real name to their rants and indictments. (We don't know how much David Lat is paying editor Elie Mystal these days, but it's not enough. Mystal is a mensch, soldier, hero and lightning rod who is often himself targeted for abuse.)
When people speak out against anonymous commenting, it's because of instances like these. And it's never a few outliers that cause the problem. It's wave after wave of anonymous commenters, all playing internet heckler, usually with nothing more interesting to contribute than random insults and f-bombs in the general direction of the writer and other readers.

It hurts the chances of other anonymous commenters to be taken seriously, especially when these non-trolling commenters offer up dissenting opinions. The tragedy is that the ACs who traffic in ad hominem attacks and drive-by insults could care less if they damage the collective reputation of anonymous commenters.

The good news is that Techdirt's comment threads are routinely full of awesome commenters, many of whom have taken it upon themselves to preemptively "troll" many of the posts, taking the words right out the mouths of would-be attackers. Hilariously, these ACs are taking offense at being "pre-trolled," going so far as to suggest that Mike himself is deploying an army of commenters to discredit the "real" ACs by (presumably) stating their own "arguments" before they've had a chance to.

(Pro tip: don't want to be confused for a "fake" AC? Pick a name and stick with it. Value your anonymity? Well, either everyone gets an equal chance to be anonymous or no one does. Which do you prefer?)

While I can certainly appreciate the frustration of Hull and Mystal, trying to do away with anonymous commenting usually results in losing a lot of the good along with the bad, and the determined trolls will always be able to find a way to use your new comment system against you.

Anonymity on the web is still very much a good thing, especially considering how many entities, from Facebook to Google to various governments, are looking to take it away. I'd still rather wade through a ton of personal attacks than require registration for something as universal as expressing an opinion.

Filed Under: anonymous, comments

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  1. identicon
    Gill Bates, 6 Nov 2011 @ 8:39am

    Re: For the greater good

    Posting Anonymous (aren't ALL posts really anonymous?) also allows some people to say things that they wouldn't normally say, at least things they wouldn't say in person to someone.

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