Monday, April 12, 2010

Anonymity and civility

(Yes, I'm still here, just really busy at the moment. Normal service should resume soon.)

Over the virtual transom comes a link to Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald lamenting the awful tone of newspaper message boards. The culprit? Anonymity.

I certainly agree that the tone of message boards is often lamentable. Pitt's claim that "when people don't have to account for what they say or do, they will often say and do things that would shock their better selves" seems almost self-evident. And yet, there must be something more subtle going on, because the argument doesn't quite add up.

Anonymity does not necessarily make people uncivil. Consider anonymous donors, for example. And, as one of Pitts' own examples shows, incivility does not require anonymity: "the milquetoast accountant who insults the quarterback's mother from the safety of the crowd" is in the middle of a crowd. Probably even on camera from time to time. Not the best way to assure one's anonymity.

Message board posters are generally not completely anonymous. They are, and forgive me for what may seem a pedantic distinction, pseudonymous. Message boards tend to require registration, tying a handle to an email address at the very least, and even those that don't generally require some name under each post. Sure, you can use a different one for each post if you like, but your posts will carry more weight if you don't.

In another case Pitts cites, the daughter of a judge leaked information under a pseudonym. Clearly the idea was to build an identity -- a pseudonym -- to establish the credibility of posts over time. On the other hand, there was clearly also an effort to hide the identity behind the pseudonym. In that sense, there is a degree of anonymity. Nonetheless, I don't believe that the poster's anonymity is the major reason for uncivil behavior.

The more important factor, I think, is not the anonymity of the aggressor, or lack thereof. It's the anonymity, or at least weakened identity, of the target of the aggression. The accountant insulting the quarterback, even if by name, is insulting a helmet and a uniform some distance away, not a recognizable person sitting face to face. The angry driver stepping on the accelerator is likely extracting vengeance on the back of a head seen dimly through glass. Likewise, the message board poster is venting at someone not in the room at the moment, whether that person is the subject of the story or a fellow poster.

Depersonalizing -- in the worst case dehumanizing -- the other party is a sure and well-worn path to behavior that would shock our better selves.

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