Cocktail Crossfire: Are Nasty, Evil, Anonymous Commenters Good for Anything?

Proposed legislation in New York State hopes to rid the Internet of mean, anonymous commenters. But do we really want to get rid of those people, even if we can?

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Currently there are bills in both houses of the New York State Legislature that would, reports Wired's David Kravets, "require New York-based websites, such as blogs and newspapers, to 'remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post.'” The purpose of this proposed legislation is to limit cyberbullies and their impact, and to cut down on "mean-spirited and baseless political attacks." Of course, bullies and mean-spirited political attacks can exist even if named, and also, outside the Internet. But those sponsoring the measure, Republican Assemblyman Jim Conte and Senator Thomas O'Mara, also a Republican, think the proposed legislation would give Internet commenters "accountability" in these wild and crazy times of the World Wide Web. Kravets points out that "unless the First Amendment is repealed, [these bills] stand no chance of surviving any constitutional scrutiny even if they were approved." But what if they were... and, do we really want to get rid of mean and/or anonymous commenters in the first place?

It's Time to Start Being Ourselves Online 

The anonymous Internet commenting experiment has failed. The theory behind Internet commenting is that it encourages discussion, elevating it to a level we could not reach if inhibited by our real names. That's a lovely idea. But in reality, anonymous Internet commenting is a race to the bottom. It encourages the lowest form of commentary.

On a recent Atlantic Wire post, for example, one of our liberated commenters wrote: "You will never find a more wretched chive of scum and villainy," referencing a post Jen wrote about Gloria Alred. (Head to this Atlantic Wire post if you want 900 comments worth of "elevated" racism.) This does not elevate anything. It's just a nasty remark, which hopes to outwit or out-asshole the rest of the trolls out there. Would this person have said this under a real name? Maybe. But, probably not for the following reasons. It is harder to be a total dickwad to someones face. (Internet commenters in their current form don't have faces.) It's also embarrassing -- something one would not say in front of their mother. But, Internet commentary has given a bunch of babies a forum to type the meanest thing they can pull out of their brains, letting them hide under names like XXXDeathbyFartsXXX, like these guys from this apt Saturday Night Live skit:

The Internet has already started to recognize the shortcomings of this system. Gawker, which celebrates its particularly evil commenters, has tweaked its system, attempting to promote the best commentary. That's one time-intensive way to do it, which may not even get rid of the insidious trolls. But, imagine if we all used real names! Sure, it would get rid of some of the knee-jerk fun we find in online comment threads, but it's all in the name of getting people to think before they type. And imagine what that would do to elevate discussion to a respectable level. Plus, how many other places are there for that kind of commentary online. You think you're funny or have brilliant political opinions that differ from mine? Start a Tumblr or tweet about it. Stop calling me pejorative terms in a comment thread under a faux moniker, coward.

It's time to level the playing field. We bloggers put ourselves out there using our full, real names. When we mess up or say something disagreeable, we are held accountable. Why should commenters get their own rules? I realize the implications for certain people who want to remain anonymous, like whistle-blowers or people in fear of losing their job. But, if it's that serious: Don't say it in a comment. Also, we don't live in China. The government will not put commenters under house arrest for disagreeing with Obama's policies. Plus, if you're too scared to be yourself online, fearful that someone close to you might get hurt, you might want to reevaluate those relationships. 

Rebecca Greenfield


Bring on the No-Name Nasties. 

One of the best pieces of Internet advice my mother ever gave me was, whether they hate you or love you, at least you know you're doing something right if you're getting their attention. To some extent, this is true. The worst thing a writer of things on the Internet can be faced with is no reaction at all. That, more than mean comments, anonymous or otherwise (and people have said some nasty things, trust me!), indicates your failure to resonate or to make a point that people are bothered enough to disagree with. But part of the beauty of the Internet is that it allows a place for people not to be accountable in saying what they really want to say—or even, in making things up for a reaction. So there are more reactions! This is how it should be.

It's also not new: It's just in a different form. Before "the Internet," in the old caveman days of print, people might send scathing letters to the editor over some issue or another. They might not sign their names, for any variety of reasons, or they might include a fake one, because they wanted to say exactly how they felt without, say, losing their job or dragging their family into the mud, or, simply, having to deal with the repercussions. Look at, for example, letters to advice columnists? They're anonymous for good reason. So, also, are whistleblowers and confidential sources who stay anonymous for their own protection. What we do on the Internet at times is not so different than the way we should treat such people, particularly as we see the non-anonymous fired and punished for occasionally saying too much or inappropriate things in their own names. At times, yes, an alleged "cyberbully" (or a person who woke up on the wrong side of the bed) is being unnecessarily mean. At other times, perhaps, someone is pointing something out that makes a difference for everyone, but they need to remain nameless in order to do so.

Beyond all that, this legislation puts the burden of accountability on the websites, not on the individuals "cyberbullying." Do we really need full-time staffers to be deleting said comments constantly (what an awful job that would be)? Or, perhaps, should we be focusing on creating better content? This bill seems to forget that the interactions we have on the Internet are constantly evolving as well—and that people who want to be anonymous probably can be, whether that means with a fake name or email address. So who would this really help? Makes us wonder if Conte and O'Mara have personal reasons (political attacks) for promoting this all.

It may be counterintuitive to those who don't spend their waking hours on the Internet, but a mean Internet commenter can be a thing of great joy. Sometimes, they make you laugh. It's like your own personal roast, or, they're so very mad, you feel weirdly amazed with yourself for making them so. Sometimes, they remind you that you are but a character to them, not real at all—and that can be both empowering and humbling. Sometimes, their words bring a crowd of kind commenters to your defense (that is the best). And whether or not we realize it, sometimes we miss them when they're gone. It can be lonely out here. Say something, anything. Also: O'Mara nd Conte: You don't have to read the comments if you don't want to.

—Jen Doll

Image via Shutterstock by Blend Images. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.