I find the veil of anonymity really fascinating.
I recently attended a lecture where Dr. P.M. Forni, author of Choose Civility, spoke at Howard Community College. Dr. Forni discussed the correlation between anonymity and incivility. Paraphrasing, the increase in anonymous interactions on the phone, internet and highways, in particular, create situations where people don’t feel the need to self-monitor their own civility.
He gave an example of a scenario in which two drivers begin escalating their anger toward each other. If they turned and saw that they knew each other, they would instantly find their situation diffused in the recognition that the other driver was a person with whom they had a relationship.
In the blogosphere, I find it fascinating that people feel it’s completely acceptable to blast another person’s reputation while not revealing their own. Not only do I find it fascinating, I did it myself. And, as I have stated before, I don’t believe there is any true anonymity on the internet.
Here’s my little story: Like most of my stories, I don’t end up looking so great. But, there’s good information here.
One day, before I’d started Hometown Columbia, I got all riled up by a particular Columbia Council member’s letter to the editor, which had been published in The Columbia Flier. This particular person seemed to have claimed that she alone knew WWJRD regarding downtown development. (That’d be What Would Jim Rouse Do? for those of you not in the know.) So, in my state of being riled, I posted an anonymous comment on Wordbones’ Tale of Two Cities blog. (In my experience, being riled, blogging, and posting comments don’t go so well together.)
Now, I had more than my suspicions about who Wordbones was. See, he’s not really hiding. He just has a pseudonym. And all his data was right there in his blog. I knew who he was, I hadn’t had a face-to-face conversation with him in a couple years and I wanted to talk to him.
See, about a week after posting my anonymous comment on his blog, I emailed Wordbones and asked him if he’d like to get together for lunch. He said straight out, “Hey, was that you who posted anonymously on my blog about XYZ channeling Jim Rouse?”
Yep, that was me. “Anonymous, my *ss,” I’d have to say.
Which made me laugh. And just reinforced my beliefs about online identity. There is no hiding. People may *think* they are hidden behind a veil of anonymity. But, ultimately, they’re not. Everyone eventually trips up. Dontchyall watch any sleuth-CSI-mystery-homicide stuff?
So, I’m not against anonymity in every single case for every single type of internet discussion. I just think you better darn well be willing to put your name to a statement and own your perspective iffin you ever get outed. Otherwise, don’t comment if you can’t own it.
See, when I commented about being tired of this council member’s “channeling Jim Rouse,” I knew I was hitting below the belt. I highly doubt she holds seances with the dead. My comment wasn’t meant to add value. It was meant to punch. To rile. And anonymity — momentary as it was … blasted open here by my owning it now — rarely yields a civil conversation. If people were being civil, they wouldn’t need to hide.
If someone needs to be a whistle blower about toxic chemicals being dumped into Lake Kittamaqundi that’s one thing. But using anonymity to claim someone should be “walloped upside the head,” … well, that’s just plain mean. And value-less.
At least that’s how I feel about what I did when I got involved in the anonymous fray.
The lesson I learned is this: Under the veil of anonymity, I felt no ownership of my words and no responsibility for the effect they may have. In short: I felt no need to be civil.
As blogger Tim O’Reilly states in his Call for a Bloggers’ Code of Conduct:
We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation in ways that were long missing from mainstream media and marketing-dominated corporate websites. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. There’s no reason why we should tolerate conversations online that we wouldn’t tolerate in our living room.
A culture is a set of shared agreements that allows us to live together. Let’s make sure that the culture we create with our blogs is one that we are proud of.