Ending online anonymity

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, January 5, 2011, at 3:46 pm

Maintaining an anonymous internet persona tends to bring out the worst in online behavior and can lead to hostile and insulting interactions, including flame wars. New York Times columnist Stanley Fish proposes that online anonymity be terminated to bring civility to internet conversations, and I agree with him completely. If you are not willing to stand behind your words, in your name, you should not speak. Fish writes:

"The practice of withholding the identity of the speaker is strategic, and one purpose of the strategy . . . is to avoid responsibility and accountability for what one is saying. Anonymity, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago observes, allows Internet bloggers 'to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others.' The power of the bloggers, she continues, 'depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences' for those they injure."

Fish raises important concerns about the character and integrity of those who prefer anonymity in order to avoid being held responsible for their public speech, but what is the solution?

Taylor Brooks, co-founder of SpeakerWiki, says that internet flame wars have led some websites to require commenters to register using their Facebook accounts or have employed systems where participants can vote off those who comment with offensive speech. "The problem is not with anonymity, the problem is with people," Brooks said. "When [commenters] know that they can't be caught they are more likely to have flame war conversations." Brooks recommends Y Combinator as a good example of a website that self-polices speech. The site avoids flame wars and increases participation by other users by expecting civility and allowing commenters to vote off others who use speech that does not promote civil discourse through downmodding.

Over the years, it has been my habit not to respond to commenters who do not to take public ownership of their public comments by name. If commenters are not willing to be held accountable to the same standards of public speech as I am, I find little incentive to take them seriously. If commenters were expected to open themselves up to accountability by putting a real name with comments, the need to report inappropriate comments to website administrators would sharply decline.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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