“There was a choice to make the Internet more anonymous than it might have been and there are a whole bunch of interesting sociological and, even, religious fantasies that lead into that choice. But this, this, combination of anonymity and, and, social mixing can bring out the worst in people. So, it’s absolutely true that it’s an authentic part of human nature, but it’s not necessarily always the best part, and so it does concern me.” Jaron Lanier during an On Point with Tom Ashbrook interview.
After listening to Lanier say the above quote, I paused the interview and sat quietly. It was one of those moments when you realize that your whole world just changed, that you thought you had it all figured out and learned you didn’t. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the Internet was anonymous by design or that it could have been designed differently. I had simply accepted it as it was. But it was time to think differently.
Looking at traditional forms of communication, it isn’t impossible, but incredibly hard to voice an opinion without attaching your name to it. Newspapers won’t print anonymous editorials, radio stations don’t have anonymous people as guests, political campaigns can’t advertise without revealing sources of funding, and, in some states, it’s even illegal to hold a street-corner protest while concealing your identity.
But the Internet is different. It’s very easy to be anonymous. It takes less than 5 minutes to set-up a random screen name and begin using it to say whatever you want, without fear of someone finding out who you are. And therein lies the danger. People are much more censured when they know their name is attached to something. When it isn’t, they feel free to say hurtful and untrue things. Once published, the nature of the Internet allows these messages to spread at speeds a viral marketer can only dream of. The amount of damage done by a singe hurtful or untrue comment is immense.
Just recently, the Battle Creek Enquirer along with newspapers across the country, began hiding the public comments section below news stories. When announcing the change in the paper on June 15, 2010, the Enquirer’s Managing Editor, Eric Greene, wrote, “The reason we, and almost every other news outlet in the land, allow online comments is because we want to promote a free exchange of ideas. However, despite our intentions, the online discussions too often are dominated by a few people who, with their behavior, effectively suppress others’ voices. When anyone feels like it’s a waste of their time to speak up, that’s when we know our online forums aren’t living up to expectations.” As a regular online reader, I am glad for the change, but find it disturbing that the newspapers have to hide the comments because of their hateful and abusive nature.
So what is the answer? The truth is, I’m not quite sure. But I do think a good first step is for all of us to think about this differently, to throw away our assumption that the Internet has to be anonymous, and decide whether we agree with the anonymity or not. Then we can figure out what we need to do.
For me, the bottom line is, the Internet didn’t have to be as anonymous as it is and I don’t think it’s a good thing.