The protective force field of anonymity — or pseudonymity — brings out the worst in some people. They say things they would never say in the presence of flesh-and-blood human beings.
Well, which is it: anonymity or pseudonymity? Inquiring censors want to know.
And it’s not just in articles about lightning-rod public figures[. . .], whom you would expect to inspire heated, sometimes obscene or hateful comments, but in the comments threads of online material that is, in the great scheme, inconsequential, as deserving of bile, profanity and wanton viciousness as a smiley-face button or a paper flower. “It amazes me how easy it is to sit behind a computer and launch a heap of self-righteous cynicism at something as harmless as this,” said one commenter. . . .
The usual response is to impose some sort of pseudonymity by requiring registration. For the dumbest Internet dweebs, that little requirement is a heavy burden, and they will not even make the effort to come up with a fake name and email address.
Of course, some site owners want a full biography, blood sample, handwriting analysis, and body cavity search, just in case they decide to consider you for a job at the National Security Agency.
Whatever the policy, the intention is always the same: to make it possible for substantive discussion to occur in comments threads, unimpeded by a constant flow of illiterate and often mindlessly provocative brain farts, many of them TYPED IN CAPITAL LETTERS and punctuated with childish ad hominem attacks.
Interestingly enough, my blog is too boring to attract these types. Most of my trolls are spammers who want to link to Russian poker sites or something like that.
But for all the downsides of comments-thread anonymity, there’s a major upside: It shows us the American id in all its snaggletoothed, pustulent glory, with a transparency that didn’t exist before the Internet.
Actually, it was always transparent in meatspace society, depending on your level of social engagement. The problem is that if you were desensitized to human decrepitude or just sheltered, you never noticed it. It wasn’t blaring at you in full color with explicit language in your genteel social register or romance novel.
This phoniness is, in fact, the main aspect of “polite society” that has been repeatedly battered in the US since the 1950s, as the mass media matured and became progressively more lurid and expressionistic. Although I am disgusted by much of the popular culture, I completely reject the self-deception of the 1950s-worshipping reactionary conservative. If 1954 American culture is your idol, you are an idealistic fool. The phony religiosity of the era is the most offensive of all to me; state-sponsored deism and self-righteous superficiality have nothing to do with the God of the Bible or salvation in Christ.
So, actually the Internet is like a window into our souls:
Few commenters desire anonymity because their sentiments urgently need and deserve protection. . . . More likely they’re people who in daily life get argued with, shut out, stepped on or otherwise treated with less than the reverence they believe they deserve. So they wade into comments sections to act out power fantasies — the righteous truth-telling antihero, the schoolyard bully, the class clown — with some assurance that their wife or mom or kids won’t find out and ask, “What on earth is wrong with you?”
However, this mostly works for people who write like ninth-graders to begin with. The blog and the anonymous Internet forum are basically re-creations of public high school culture.
Nevertheless, this recalls the popular Christian argument for full disclosure on the Internet: it functions as a broadened, speeded-up form of moral restraint through social pressure. Maybe so. In the long run, though, we work out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12) through the interplay of self-expression and listening to God with fear and trembling. Everyone treads a line on the border between self-restraint and parental suffocation, and problems occur when we seek to please men rather than God.