Over the past week, we’ve been teaching a series of workshops in the Interior. We had a couple of media people in our sessions–one editor of a small town newspaper, and one veteran TV and radio producer. Both of them spoke about how they disliked the web’s capacity for anonymous comment.
Kirk makes three media people concerned about this issue:
For some reason, anonymity is acceptable — not as the justifiable shield for those who fear retribution if identified, but as a shield for those with other kinds of fears, motives or tendencies. Somewhere early in the game it became a rule instead of an exception to adopt a nickname and speak through it.
The result breaks what we were all taught rightly in school: That part of the bargain in speaking freely is the responsibility to stand up and be counted, and that part of the bargain in being criticized is to at least know who is attacking.
I’ve heard precisely the same concern from other newspaper folks in the past. This shouldn’t be surprising, for a couple of reasons.
First, when a newspaper is going to print a letter to the editor, they typically require (or at least request) validating details like an address or phone number. Second, I’m sure that most reporters have, at one point or another, been the subject of venomous, anonymous criticism. This might encourage some pretty black and white views about online identity.
Kirk is clearly a web-savvy guy, a Level 12 Web Citizen, so I don’t want to lump him in with the other media people to whom I’m referring.
We Trust the People We Know
However, I do want to extend a theory about the other complainants. They were all over forty, making them, in the parlance of demographers, digital immigrants. They never grew up crafting their one or more identities on the web.
They may not, for example, fully grasp that one can be accountable, creditable and incognito online. Over the last decade I’ve come to know and trust several online acquaintances despite never having known their full or real name. If they had, they’d know that there’s no equivalent of “getting their address and phone number” online, and that identities are fluidly built and demolished based on online activity.
I’m not making an argument for unfettered, anonymous comments in online spaces like a newspaper’s website. Mostly, I’m trying to encourage people to think of online identity as a continuum, not an on-off switch. And to point out that as the web gets more social, anonymity becomes less and less effective as a tactic. We trust the people we know, after all.