Anonymous commenters are as much a part of the online world as hyperlinks and the Brown Bailout guy. You find commenters on YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and pretty much every blog and Web site that exists--and yes, that includes The Atlantic Wire. (Our commenters, of course, are the bestest, most smartest commenters in the world.)
But not everyone on the Internet can be as charming as Super Chundy. Some people are downright terrible. Granted the anonymity of the Web, they post ignorant, hateful, inflammatory messages, whether out of boredom or spite or a wanton desire to sow chaos. These people are trolls, and two new essays offer opposing thoughts on what to do about them.
Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, thinks that Web sites need to start holding people accountable. In a piece for The New York Times, Zhou argues that "content providers, social networking platforms and community sites" should "do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity." In other words, says Zhou, we can't just be usernames and avatars online; we must be people, like we are in all other areas of our lives.
Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking ... Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let's start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.
But Mike Barthel, writing in The Awl, begs to differ. Barthel maintains that the tone of a site's comments is inextricably linked to the tone of the site itself: you might use a different voice to comment on a Gawker story than you would for, say, a piece at The New Republic. And if the Internet becomes less anonymous, he says, we lose a certain amount of mental flexibility:
Eliminating anonymity and encouraging everyone to act online in the same way they would in real life essentially ruins the point of going online in the first place. There's a real value in being able to try on different identities and code-switch at will rather than by necessity. And there's a real value in communities being able to enforce their particular values rather than those of society at large ... It would make more sense, instead of trying to find some universal solution to the problem of trolls, to look at the ways in which individual communities have dealt with the issue and admit that every venue will have to design its own solution unique to their context. Facebook wants to make everywhere online the same, and I don't think they'll be able to.
Fair reader, what say you? Since this is inevitable anyway, we're just going to go ahead and declare the comments section of this post a troll free-for-all. (Only this post; you guys stay out of the pay-freeze story.) The Wire will get things started: I HEARD OBABA MAKES HIS OWN FOUR LOKO IN A BATHTUB STILL IN THE WHITE HOUSE. SHOW US THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE!!!