The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist of the Miami Herald Leonard Pitts is the latest to decry comment anonymity.  If letters to the editor must be signed and confirmed to be who they say they are, why not do the same for commenters on news media’s web sites.

As any student of Sociology 101 can tell you, 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.

That’s the story of the mousy, mosque-going school teacher swept up in the window-breaking mob during the big blackout. It’s the story of the milquetoast accountant who insults the quarterback’s mother from the safety of the crowd. And it is the story of newspaper message boards, which have inadvertently licensed and tacitly approved the worst of human nature under the guise of free speech.

Enough. Make them leave their names. Stop giving people a way to throw rocks and hide their hands. Any dropoff in the quantity of message board postings will surely be made up in the quality thereof.

The salient point is fewer but better comments.  I rarely read comments to stories or blogs because one must wade through so much bigotry, stupidity and downright incoherence that it’s a monumental time suck.  So if there much fewer comments many of us might read them and even join in.

Moreover, it’s just another nail in the coffin of common civility.  Yes, crude television and movies contribute.  Misogynist music videos don’t help.  Common profanity inures us all.  But reading comment after comment of insults is depressing.

Many blogs require email addresses, giving I suppose some channel of recourse if truly dangerous comments are made. 

Chicago Trib columnist Eric Zorn sympathizes with anonymous commenters:

I understand why some people don’t want to attach their real names to comments: Search engines being what they are, your stated opinions can follow you now for decades like a cloud of gnats.  If your name is unusual enough, a  prospective employer, blind date, new neighbor or anyone else can stick your name into a search engine and discover reams’ worth of tossed-off opinions, rants and retorts, some of which you may, by then, deeply regret.

The idea behind having people affix their real names to letters to the editor is a good one — by creating accountability it generates a certain civility. 

Yet at the time when this became a custom,  such expressions were evanescent.  Monday’s tirade became Tuesday’s fish-wrap, and only a very determined researcher could or would spend the hours necessary to assemble the sort of dossier that, today, the idle Googler can generate in mere seconds.

So because we now have a better way of making people responsible for their acts of stupidity, we should give them a get out of jail free card?

He has a compromise:  pseudonymity.

The compromise solution seems to me to be allowing people to comment and discuss issues using a consistent identity of some sort — an identity (Screen name, nickname, first name, set of initials, whatever) linked to a user profile and reserved exclusively for that one person.  To a great extent, we see that working here on Change of Subject message threads, where various regulars protect their "brands" and comment responsibly even though they remain, for the most part, anonymous. 

I’d like to see these identities carry images — photos, if possible — as they are on Facebook comment threads, where identity inspires civility. And I’d like to see them connected to background information so that even if we don’t know the real name of  "BigBob" we can learn that, say, he’s a Northwest suburban accountant and father of three who hates the White Sox and considers himself a libertarian.

I’m not sure that solves the problem, though Zorn is not the first guy to propose it. Still, I must say, for proposing it, he’s a stupid jerk who should burn in hell with all those other anti-American communist pinkos who don’t deserve to live in the land of the free and the home of the cowards brave and who are lying pieces of liberal trash.



ADDENDUM: Here’s a different take on the issue.  Seems an anonymous commenter questioned how of a town council chose its police chief.  Apparently there were no ad hominem attacks or profanity.  But the town council wants the commenter revealed.  As much as I don’t like anonymous comments, this is one thin-skinned council.

Posted in: Anonymity.
Last Modified: April 2, 2010