Monday, April 26, 2010

On Anonymous Comments

There's an interesting little debate held at the Guardian on anonymous comments on the internet, and the desirability of having them. The pro-side argues that it's the only way to get a free and open exchange of ideas going, the con-side argues that anonymity brings out the worst in people (rudeness, personal attacks etc). I have a few thoughts on this.

First of all, let there be no mistake: this is a purely normative debate, and has no bearing on the real world whatsoever. We have come way too far down the road of anonymity; can you imagine all those newspapers, blogs, message boards, and random websites requiring real names to post comments? I can't. That doesn't mean it's not a debate worth having, but we should be aware of the stakes, which are purely academic.

Second, there's anonymous and then there's anonymous. Anonymous is when you come up with a nickname or clever pseudonym to post comments. Anonymous is when you write comments as "Anonymous". The former is not a problem at all, and is the norm on basically 99% of well-trafficked websites out there. The latter is uber-annoying because one can't tell people apart. Unfortunately, if you want to ban anonymous comments in blogger, you're forced to use a Google ID, which not everyone has, which is why our blog still allows anonymous comments.

Third, I know the "anonymity brings out the worst in us" argument is one made very commonly; I've made it myself a million times (especially when doing my favorite thing, which is perusing comments on Youtube videos of India-Pakistan cricket matches). But it's worth considering this aspect: human beings are, at root, social animals. By that I mean that basically all of our "natural" instincts are conditioned by the social environments within which we are embedded.

For example, as living animals, we have a need to eat food, but the way we eat food is socially or culturally given. In some parts of the world, it's normal to eat food sitting on the floor, in others you must eat on a table. In some parts of the world, you use a knife and fork, in others your hands, and in others still, chopsticks.

In turn, such social and cultural considerations are mediated by our own personal experiences, narrowing further still the applicability of broad-brush "natural" characterizations. So our "natural" instinct is to want to have sex. Social considerations dictate, in part, what we consider attractive traits in a potential mate, so fair skin might be privileged in certain places and long fingernails in others. And then personal considerations winnow that further, so someone who wears a green shirt the first time is more attractive than someone who wears red, or whatever.

All this is a roundabout way of saying: rabid and disgusting and offensive anonymous comments seem to shine a light on what our "natural" state is -- that is, being rabid and disgusting and offensive. But there's another way of looking at it, and that is to focus on the fact that human beings have constructed society that is advanced to the extent that such outbursts are shunned. When people look at the disjuncture between our behavior in front of other people and our behavior when we are hidden, they shake their heads at what we are, deep down. But surely we can also applaud our societies for rendering such conduct exclusively to the private and anonymous domain (for the most part)?

13 comments:

ayesha5 said...

Anonymity is good to an extent. I agree people really become uncouth at times leaving anonymous comments because they know they can't be tracked or caught. At times even knowing one's IP address and location isn't enough!

Despite that I support and respect anonymity as long as the user doesn't transgress.

Ahsan said...

By the way, I'm eagerly awaiting our joker-commenters to comment on this post anonymously.

Zoe said...

Wow, I really do agree with the last paragraph.

Though, I think rude-laden-with-swear-words-anonymous comments are just cowardly!

mcphisto said...

damn ahsan, i wanted to make that point, anonymously ofcourse.

now i have to be part of that norm found on well trafficked website and use a nick name.

karachikhatmal said...

pfft - talking about blog comments while muslims around the world are dying and your favourite program is caricaturing the prophet.

but what else do i expect from this purveyor of typical liberal elitist ivy league barca supporting satan worshipping music listening long haired grammarian bullshit - go lick uncle sam's boots you infidels.

-

Anonymous

Anonymous said...

did u call me a joker? Because i aint one. Jokers are those who adopt pseudonyms to desribe themselves, such as "karachikhatmal" or "zoe". If anonymity didnt exist you would have never enjoyed Scream. Its a blessing dude. sometimes we dont like to stick our faces in, you know. What if karachikatmal wanted to post another comment. He would look like an idiot; and since he has a blog, he really cares about his virtual reputation. So, if he wanted to comment again he would do like this! Anonymously!

"anonymity is like farting in public and then blaming others" (Anon)

Anonymous said...

Inter will be close, but not close enough: Champions league preview

At this stage..... (bullshit bullshit bullshit)....Barcelona go through 2-1 on aggregate.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! (youre right this time though. I am rude)

Anonymous said...

Did you realize your mistake now, Ahsan? We are now cognizant of our true potential. Fear us!

Unite all Anons! There's no stopping now.

SPAM! SPAM! SPAM!

Oh yeah! Fuck I don't care if this comment goes unnoticed. I have spoken my heart out. How cool is that?

Maindak Wala Jinn (for a day, not TLW) said...

Faster Anon-o-cat! Spam! Spam!

Ahsan, you're first mistake:

can you imagine all those newspapers, blogs, message boards, and random websites requiring real names to post comments?

In South Korea every one is given a national ID to log on to the internet. The US, UK and other anglo countries have shown the deep extent of their alliance. You may not have heard of ACTA but it's a very tough anti-piracy law being negotiated across the OECD nations, which for example in Britain would allow the government to Ban your entire home address from the internet. This too on a simple complaint from an entertainment company that may have snooped around your hard drive and found some unpaid for music.

My point is, that if the powers that be decided to ban anonymous posting across all platforms, within a few years it could be done.

Maindak Wala Jinn said...

The US, UK and other Anglo countries have shown the deep extent of their alliance.

Sorry for that brain fart. I meant that the US, UK and other Anglo countries demonstrated during the Cold War the extent of their electronic alliance through their sharing of electronic and signals intelligence between GCHQ and NSA.

They could easily join to create a deeper and more intrusive anti-piracy agreement that could either do away with anonymity, or it order full IP identification of every blog post and internet comment. Admittedly, it'ld take a few years, but they could get to an anonymity free world.

After all, we are merely working on US created hardware and software.

Brett said...

If news reporters can insist on using anonymous sources and the like, then so can the average commentators on the internet.

Omar said...

Great post, I used this topic as a basis for the discussion on my radio show (with the appropriate plugging/crediting of your blog). I received much abuse. Anonymously.

Anonymous said...

stfu Omar yor music sucks. Hahahaha