Karen Spears - Study

The Freedoms and Issues Prevalent in Anonymous Commenting

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Central Question

Does the behavior of anonymously commenting on websites encourage and promote thoughtful, engaging conversations, or should the practice be abolished due to the prevalence abuse and negativity within anonymous commenting?

Keywords

  • Anonymous
  • Comment/Commenting
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Freedom
  • Thoughtful
  • Privacy

Introduction to my Study

For my study, I decided to comment anonymously on some of Collegiate Times articles. I started our with a really structured plan for how many times a week I would comment, and my startling revelations about how much I had changed over the course of the study. Unfortunately, I did not get to comment as often as I liked as assignments, work, etc. piled up the further I got into the semester. I did comment anonymously on the website; however, to keep my identity safe, and to maintain the illusion of anonymity on the website- I will only reveal some highlights of the comments I posted, and not with the exact terminology of what I wrote.

My Selection of Articles in the Collegiate Times

I chose topics of Collegiate Times articles that seemed to have some interest and would provoke some comments from online readers. Some of the topics included:

  • Drinking Downtown
  • Affirmative Action
  • Financial Aid
  • Over-Medication of Children

This list is not the only articles I posted on, but I just wanted to give a general idea of what kind of topics I picked. I think that some articles were definitely more thought provoking than others, but I tried to keep a wide range of articles to see how my commenting style changed.

Analysis of My Comments

Although initially I wanted to keep my comments professional and substantive, I found myself victim to the "online disinhibition effect," otherwise known as the The Greater Internet ****wad Theory. According to Farhad Manjoo, an editor of Slate, “If you give a normal person anonymity and an audience, this theory posits, you turn him into a total wad.” (I decided that having a curse word linked to my name probably isn’t the best thing). (Here's a link to the article: Troll, Reveal Thyself)

I found that although I would start out being academic and trying to provoke thoughtful responses from other online readers- the easier route was to post something not so thought-provoking and to just state simply my opinion on the topic.

Honestly, sometimes I got a little judgmental of the writers choice of content- especially when it came to publishing articles on getting drunk in public-and with the “free reign” of anonymity, I felt as though I was able to preach from my high pedestal. And it felt good! I got a real understanding of why people troll articles and try to stir the pot- it is slightly addicting, and being able to make your perspective heard, but without the accountability of your name next to it, is a very liberating feeling.

I did not directly respond to other people’s comments, because I wanted to see if others would respond to my comments. I only got one response (sad, I know) and it was not very thought provoking or intellectually stimulating at all. Was my writing at fault? Would someone comment because I actually put my name out there? Would I have made my writing sound more “smart” if my name was next to it? How would my style change based on whether I put my name next to it- would I find more sources to back up my statements?

Overall, anonymity I think encourages laziness, a laziness in finding facts to back up opinions, and laziness with grammar and the quality of the writing. People hurl insults as if it is their job; meanness and negative remarks overwhelm the comments that I read from people who don’t have their names next to it.

And so I wondered-
Does the ability to comment anonymously provoke higher or lesser quality conversation? Should we require people to put themselves out there and own up to their beliefs?

I then proceeded to a review of literature, videos and newspapers to figure out what arguments are out there for and against anonymity in commenting.

Review of Literature/Outside Sources

The Argument For Anonymously Commenting

Eli Pariser, in his novel The Filter Bubble, brings up a great argument for anonymity on the Internet:

The one-identity problem illustrates one of the dangers of turning over your most personal details to companies who have a skewed view of what identity is. Maintaining separate identity zones is a ritual that helps us deal with the demands of different roles and communities. (118)

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I relate this comment to my study in that news sites and other commenting forums are linking Facebook to the comments that you might post online. Pariser worries that, rather than having the freedom to write what you want, every opinion that you have written will be linked back to you. Pariser believes that you want to be able to comment that you like Bath and Body Works soap or you liked a political candidate, without having to have the label of “Soap-lover” or being affiliated with a certain political party.

Pariser incorporated a quote in his book that I thought was especially pertinent to the anonymity argument: “If we thought that our every word and deed were public,” writes law professor Charles Fried, “fear of disapproval or more tangible retaliation might keep us from doing or saying things which we would not do or say could we be sure of keeping them to ourselves.” (119) Pariser includes this quote to make readers think, do we really want to have to police what we say rather than comment freely without having to worry whether friends or coworkers will judge us?

Matt Zoller Seitz, an editor on the Salon website, echoes the need for anonymity in his article “Why I like vicious, anonymous online comments.” He starts out by saying that anonymity is a “protective force-field” that “brings out the worst in people” –by addressing the opposing viewpoint early on in his argument, I think that this makes his argument stronger overall. He believes that we need to have on display “the American id in all its snaggletoothed, pustulent glory, with a transparency that didn’t exist before the Internet. And in its rather twisted way, that’s a public service.” He points out a very interesting perspective on anonymity, in that we are truly reflecting the “full spectrum of human behavior, not just the part that we find reassuring and enlightening.” I think that he wants us to be unrestrained when we are online, and not condone people for their beliefs or their idiotic comments- and that “the civil self is the mask.”

Although my study concerns commenting anonymously, in the article “Why I prefer to Remain Anonymous,” some writers who publish under pseudonyms cited that: “Anonymity is liberating. One can write straight from the heart without worrying about the consequences.”

To learn more about anonymously commenting view the following video the case for anonymity, view this video:

The Argument Against Anonymously Commenting

Farhad Manjoo, an editor for Slate, argues, “Letting people remain anonymous while engaging in fundamentally public behavior encourages them to behave badly.” As I stated earlier in my analysis on my study, he commented on the “online disinhibition effect” which, he thinks, brings out the worst in people. I thought that he made a very good point of how people should be accountable for what they say:

Posting a comment is a public act. 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.

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I think that this is a very good standard to hold people accountable to, and many others agree. Gayle Falkenthal, an editor for the Washington Times (link to her blog post: "Internet Trolls, anonymity and The First Amendment"), first describes how American newspapers have transitioned from first allowing anonymous letters to the editor, to insisting that people identify themselves. In the same fashion with online commenting, we started with anonymous commenting, thinking that this would bring a new wave of conversation never seen before by connecting people all over the world. Unfortunately, Falkenthal argues “anonymity plus anger bred boldness in the form of bad behavior. And so, the Troll was born.”

Falkenthal believes that “News organizations should be the first to insist people reveal their identities in exchange for the privilege of reaching a large audience under their brand banner.” And I agree, considering the fact that the Newspaper is allowing people to use their website to converse with others for discussion, they should be able to set the rules and restrict people who are going to use it for the wrong reasons, Falkenthal brings up a great point, “Some speech doesn’t deserve a forum.” She also contrasted our weaknesses to stand up behind our beliefs with accountability to the strengths of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine who “stood behind their incendiary, treasonous views in public even at the risk of bring hanged for what they said.” In addition, I think that Falkenthal brings a strong point up that

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity on someone else's website. If you want to be anonymous, create your own blog and become the modern version of a Colonial pamphleteer.

The Movement Towards Comment Accountability in News Sites

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In a New York Times article, Richard Perez-Pena argued that the latest trend, especially in news sites, is to remove the ability for anonymous commenting. I found it especially interesting that he included the 1993 cartoon “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” because it does reflect how the times have changed from then to now with respect to anonymity. Due to the abuse of the privilege of anonymity with inappropriate and racist remarks online, Perez-Pena argues that “news executives say that merely making the demand for a name and an e-mail address would weed out much of the most offensive commentary”.

Lindsay Gsell also reported on the status of news sites removing the ability to anonymously comment, as it attracts “spam, profanity, harassment and unpaid advertising.” Gsell interviewed Matthew Baise, an editor for the Baltimoresun.com, who reported, “People say things online that they would never say face to face.” Gsell also stated, “At its best, removal of inhibitions can lead to a lively but civil exchange of ideas. At its worst, it can mean profanity, and sites are loath to alienate potential community members, tarnishing their brands in the process.” Similar to Falkenthal, Gsell believes that brands could suffer due to the negative comments online, and considering the fact that they are providing a free service, the least that the commenters could do is hold themselves accountable for what they say by linking their name to their comment.

To learn more about the case against anonymous commenting, view this video from MSN:

http://video.ca.msn.com/watch/video/anonymous-comments/16ael13qn

Synthesis

What’s the point of all this research and my study?

Well, I’ve learned quite a few things and developed my stance based on my research.

For one, I think that anonymous commenting on forums such as 4chan are ok. It isn’t a newspaper site with a reputation on the line, the whole purpose of the site is noncommercial and people know what they are getting into when they enter the site. Therefore, I do not think that people need to be held to their beliefs in this instance.

However, I do agree that on newspaper sites, people should be held accountable for their beliefs, because they are in fact posting under the banner and reputation of said newspaper. I think that people will be more thoughtful in their comments if they are required to put their email associated with the comment that they have, and they most likely will be deterred to post something racist if they have to create a fake email account to do so.

I think that overall what I’ve seen with anonymous commenting, the quality is not where it idealistically should be. Most anonymous comments (that I’ve found) are not used for the purposes they were initially intended for most are for sharing LOLcats pictures, etc.

The main point to take away: “Think before you speak” or in this case, comment.

Works Cited

Basulto, Dominic. “The Internet is whatever you want it to be.” The Washington Post, Ideas@Innovations, 26 August 2011.

Falkenthal, Gayle. “Internet trolls, anonymity and The First Amendment.” The Washington Times, Media Migraine: 26 September 2011. Web.

Gsell, Lindsay. "Comments Anonymous." American Journalism Review 31.1 (2009): 16-17. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web.

Manjoo, Farhad. “Troll, Reveal Thyself.” Slate. Slate, 9 March 2011. Web.

Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble. New York: Penguin Group, Inc.: 2011. Print.

Perez, Pena. “News Sites Rethink Anonymous Comments.” New York Times 11 April 2010: B1. Print.

Rosen, Jeffrey. “Protect Our Right to Anonymity.” The New York Times 12 September 2011: A31. Print.

Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Why I like vicious, anonymous online comments.” Salon: Internet Culture: 3 August 2010. Web.