Mike Crider on what our online comment sections might show us about the American psyche.
Anonymity is necessary in certain situations. People should be protected when they are reporting crime, when they are conducting research, or even when they are exposing corruption and fear retribution or retaliation. Simply put, there are valid times for someone not to know your name.
However, there are other times when anonymity can be a dangerous thing, such as in the world of online comments. I’m sure that all of us can point to a news story on any major site, and be mortified by the types of comments people will leave in the name of getting their point across. At this point in history, it doesn’t even matter what the story is about, it tends to get ugly on any subject, and it tends to happen quickly.
I think many of us realize how terrible some of these comments can be, until we think of a time when we have done it ourselves. Maybe some have written a comment and realized it could be perceived as hurtful, not just disagreeing. This realization needs to happen more often. However, many times the writer of such a comment gets a rush out of writing something that they know they cannot get personally criticized for and will stir up a hornet’s nest. In a forum where we know we cannot be identified, we are more likely to push the boundaries and say something we would not normally say.
In essence, anonymity makes us bolder and more willing to say…what we believe. I guess for me, the question becomes a more complex thought: if anonymous comments reflect the moral fabric of American society, what does that say about us as a people? In my opinion, there are still many situations for us to make true progress as a country. I believe it demonstrates that almost half of a century removed from the Civil Rights Movement, we are still struggling to let go of prejudices that have plagued us since the colonies were formed. These days, few are willing to verbalize those prejudices unless hiding in the anonymity of online forums and comment sections.
The truly ugly idea is that my generation is the one that is supposed to be teaching the digital natives what responsible use of technology, and the internet, are. We are the ones that should be identifying ways to curb the reckless use of social media, but we are no better than any other generation. We support television that caters to ideologues on both extremes of the political spectrum, giving the false impression that the United States is a sharply divided country. Realistically, we are much closer as a people than you might think. Many people identify as moderates of their political party, and a growing number of people choose to disassociate themselves with a party altogether.
But this political mirage has been one of the key ingredients in bringing about some of the nasty ideas that are put forth by otherwise mild-mannered American citizens. Not every Democrat is a communist, and not every Republican is a member of a hate group; furthermore, very few people in the US would fall into these categories. But comments written on national forums would make you believe otherwise. The government shutdown should have been a key example for many, especially if you watched and took note of how much effort went into blaming other people for the things that a candidate actually voted for.
If we are willing to allow these types of things to be said and if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of responding in the same method by which we were initially incensed, we are only perpetuating the cycle. We cannot argue with nameless, faceless people. This type of discourse rarely, if ever, produces fruitful conversation.
I am not calling for an end to comments, because I don’t believe that is productive. I think reactions to stories can be extremely powerful, and the internet gives us that opportunity. But I believe the time has come to end anonymous comments on all major news sites. Some have already started, but more need to follow.
The scary part for me is that if, anonymously, we are able to show our true colors, then our colors as a society are very ugly indeed. We still hate, we still call names, we still use derogatory comments, and we still exude ignorance. It is as if we have forgotten (some would even argue we never knew) how to have a respectful conversation where people simply disagree. We can’t seem to separate personal differences from making things personal.
Herm Edwards, a former NFL player and head coach as well as current ESPN personality, famously says “put your name on it”. In other words, if you have something to say to the public, make sure you own your comments. I think it’s time for people to start doing that. Quit hiding behind a screen name to “troll” media sites. If we don’t have the courage to put our thoughts on a web site because we are afraid they may be deemed offensive, then possibly, they don’t need to be posted.
In closing, anonymity is necessary in certain instances, which I outlined at the beginning of the article. But the idea that people are given the power to use anonymous screen names to post comments that are hateful and unkind (and worthless) is one that gives our people a bad name and reputation.