Death by Moron
Has anonymous commenting destroyed meaningful online dialogue? Oh, hell yes
Here is my strange confession: I miss my hate mail.
It's an odd thing to admit, but in a perverse sort of way, I actually miss the wretched river, the rancid flow of puerile, nasty, sickeningly homophobic email I used to receive on a regular basis from the ultra-right and the Christian right and the Mormon right and the Bush-impaired whenever I would post a friendly, pointed column full of tangy liberal attitude. Which is, of course, all of them.
Oh, I miss all the lovely and positive email too, which outpaced the nasty stuff by a huge margin. But the hate mail was (and still is, what dribble I now get) very special indeed, great fodder for live readings, for the reaction of horrified disbelief of anyone who saw it, for the charming reminder of just how ugly and violent and grammatically challenged the human animal can be.
(FYI: the best of the worst of my hate mail -- about 50 truly stunning examples -- will be published in my upcoming mega-compendium of a book, "The Daring Spectacle." Get on my personal newsletter to find out more).
So, what happened? Where has all the hate gone? One easy explanation: the merciful EoB, the End of Bush. The extraordinary failure of the neocon mindset means that the most troglodytic of the haters have now retreated to the Caves of Ignorance to lick their wounds and fellate each other in assorted airport restrooms. Good news all around.
But that's only a small part of it. Something else is afoot, something more nefarious and curious and, well, downright sad. Fact is, despite the steadily increasing traffic to my column over the years, I now get far less email overall than I used to, either positive or negative.
You already know the reason: Anonymous commenting. Those semi-public forums like the one you see right down there, at the bottom of this very column, those "community" discussion areas borne of the blogosphere and spread to every media site imaginable, from SFGate to the New York Times to YouTube to Knitting World. Indeed, they're one of the most popular, widely used innovations of the Web 2.0 revolution, and they've dramatically transformed public communication and conversation.
For the worse. Oh, for the far, far worse.
I didn't always think so. I was, for years, an enthusiastic advocate of the egalitarian, free-for-all, let's-level-the-playing field aspect of the Web. More voices! More feedback! More participation! Bring it on!
Not anymore. As I've mentioned before, I now tend to agree with "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, who said, "Nothing has done more to make us dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the Internet." Hyperbole? Not by much.
But let's spin backwards for just a moment, to a time before blogs and Facebook and the Web 2.0 socialgasm. There was this wonderful killer app called email. There was a concomitant killer innovation, called HTML links. As every newspaper hastily rushed its content online, suddenly reporters and columnists and hardcore news jockeys alike began seeing their bylines turned into a sweet, baffling little "mailto" link.
And lo, a revolution was born.
For the first time in more than a century, a fundamental shift occurred in the sacred -- but formerly quite cold and detached -- writer/reader relationship. Suddenly, readers could respond instantly to a newspaper piece, to the journalist in question, and authors could instantly know the effect and accuracy of their words. No more hand-written, snail-mailed Letters to the Editor that might (but probably won't) get published two or three weeks later. The feedback loop was made instant, and enormously compelling. It was lauded as a new era, one that would change the newspaper biz forever.
Or maybe not. Because now, that once-revolutionary connection, all those vibrant reader interactions I once cherished, have changed again. Or more accurately, have devolved dramatically.
That sacred relationship is no longer the slightest bit sacred. If you've ever spent much time in the comment boards of this or any major media site (or, of course, any popular blog), you already know: Anonymity tends to bring out the absolute worst in people, the meanest and nastiest and least considerate. Something about not having to reveal who you really are caters to the basest, most unkind instincts of the human animal. Go figure.
Thoughtful discourse? Humorous insight? Sometimes. But mostly it's a tactless spectator sport. It's about being seen, about out-snarking the previous poster, about trying to top one another in the quest for... I'm not sure what. A tiny shot of notoriety? The feeling of being "published" on a major media site? Or is it the thrill that can only come from hurling a verbal Molotov at the Great Satan of "corporate media," and then running away like a snorting 8-year-old? All of the above?
Do not misunderstand: It is far from all bad, and many intelligent, eloquent, hilarious people still add their voices to comment boards across the Interwebs, including ours. Hell, I still get terrific pleasure from reading some of the comments on a few of my favorite blogs, along with rich information, morbid humor, even new column ideas and unusual angles I never thought of. What's more, some of the larger media sites still have enough resources (read: overworked, as-of-yet-not-laid-off staffers) to moderate their forums and keep the verbal chyme to a minimum.
But the coherent voices are, by and large, increasingly drowned out by the nasty, the puerile, the inane, to the point where, unless you're in the mood to have your positive mood ruined and your belief in the inherent goodness of humanity stomped like a rainbow flag in the Mormon church, there's almost no point in trying to sift through it anymore. The relentless nastiness is, quite literally, sickening.
Solutions? That's easy.
One is to block it all out. Install and employ something like the fabulously named StupidFilter (which I wrote about last year), an elaborate algorithm that scans through and removes all insidiously childish, dumb, or otherwise moronic language from a given chat forum. Hey, it could work. The StupidFilter Project is, apparently, still quite real, though I've no idea if it will ever catch on. We can only hope.
There is, of course, another solution, and it's far simpler and more elegant and it would fix the entire problem in an instant.
It is this: Reveal yourself. Anyone who wishes to post a public comment must also post his/her real name, an actual email address, maybe even a nice little headshot. You want to participate and add to the conversation, criticize and parry and thrust? Great. Let's see who you are, honest and true. Fire it up. Debate. Engage. Let's create a real community.
No more hiding. No more anonymous cowardice. No more hit-and-run verbal spitwads and avoiding responsibility for what you say. Hey, writers and journalists have been doing it for years, posting our names and email addresses and even photos for the entire world to see. If Web 2.0 means we're now all in this public sphere together, shouldn't I know exactly who you are, too? Shouldn't everyone?
Will it happen? Not a chance. Truth is, anonymous forums still drive a ton of desperately needed traffic to every media joint that offers them, including this one. Until the novelty of anon posting dies out -- which I'm fairly convinced it will, relatively soon -- commerce wins. In a land where click-throughs are king, quantity still trumps quality, every time. Don't you just hate that? I look forward to your emails.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle