Turning inner space into outer space

August 27, 2013

Dear Arianna: Thank you for getting rid of anonymous commenters

Arianna Huffington has declared that she will do away with anonymous commenting in her publication, the Huffington Post. Let’s hope she sticks to her guns and doesn’t cave in to vehement — though ultimately weak — arguments in favour of retaining anonymity.

One of these is an article written by Mathew Ingram, one of the great defenders of no-name. He contends that there would be much to lose:

. . . there are valuable things we can learn from commenters that they would never contribute if they had to attach their real identity to it. Comments about spousal abuse, sexual identity, religious persecution — the list goes on.

He goes on himself to quote a snide tweet by technology columnist Dan Gillmor:

HuffPost will soon require Federalist Papers #1 author Publius to post comments under his real name, Alexander Hamilton.

In other words, without the protection of anonymity, much evil would carry on without us ever being able to expose it. Great words would never be spoken due fear of repercussions from those in power.

Ingram and Gillmor are both smart, so it’s astounding that they would have us believe such nonsense. I would like to see even one example of a comment that made any kind of difference to the world — or even the well-being of one person.

Anyone suffering from spousal abuse can surely find better recourse than the comments tacked on to the end of an article at Huffington Post. A phone call to the police or a social worker might be a good start.

But supposing you just want to talk about it. Forums for this type of sensitive discourse already exist — just look up your local social agencies or advocacy groups. The people who attend these meetings are much more helpful than random commenters.

And my goodness, how did Alexander Hamilton ever get by without the benefit of anonymously commenting on the Internet. He took advantage of something still available to all of us — self-publishing. And now it’s easier than ever — just start up a blog.

Ingram also argues that making people use their real name won’t help anyway. He cites evidence from South Korea and Facebook to back this up. OK, first of all, South Korea is a whole other country and culture. Lessons learned there might apply here, but we need more than that. Second, Facebook’s insistence on real names does make a difference. It’s far from perfect, but the number of persistent trolls is diminished.

But let’s say we’re convinced — that real names do nothing to improve comments. It’s still a good idea for the very reason that people who want to stand up and be counted should have the guts to show their faces. There are few good excuses for doing otherwise. And there are plenty of good alternatives for those rare instances where there is a good excuse.

In other words, if you have to be a troll then do the right thing and be a troll with a real name.