The New York Times reports today a trend among online news organizations. It seems the days of the anonymous commenter are rapidly coming to an end. It is a welcome development.
The Internet is a great tool for fostering discussion about all manner of things. I think of it as a virtual agora, a marketplace where citizens of all stripes can rub elbows, and egos, to discuss the issues of the day. But it is also more. Often the Internet is used as a playpen for the disturbed and for cowards.
My favorite story of Internet subterfuge involves Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold in Cleveland. She was posting hostile comments anonymously beneath news stories about a lawyer appearing before in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. It what can only be referred to as the world's premiere case of brass ovaries, Judge Strickland is suing the newspaper for violating her privacy. The newspaper, you see, found out that the judge was playing Sneaky Shirley.
I have a couple of professional snarks who send me and others comments. What's more, I have a pretty good idea of who these folks are based on their comments. But here's the rub: You can't defend yourself against a phantom. Some people are simply content to piss and moan beneath a cloak of anonymity: It is the ultimate form of cowardice.
I stopped running anonymous comments a while back. I now require commenters to register. Lo and behold, registration yielded a cease in hostile traffic. Presumably, some folks still hate me, but their hatred is a gift they hide. In some cases I suspect that is because they simply don't want the full truth to be erred. It is easy to point a finger; harder to look into a mirror
So be it, I say. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many other papers are moving toward a registration requirement.
“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”
No one is chilled in the exercise of their First Amendment rights by requiring to own what they say. The trend toward requiring accountability is welcome, and does not in the least diminish the quality of debate online.