Poynter.org, one of my favorite sources for thoughtful insight on the media, is reporting that the Lewiston, ME Sun Journal will begin requiring that in order to comment on a story, users create accounts using their real names – and these names will be verified by phone calls or by matching names with the paper’s subscription records.
Is this the first clarion call to reclaiming civility in the public space? Or does it mark the death of something precious?
At the outset of the Brave New Media Experiment, the evangelists (and I) were all excited for the unfettered flow of discourse that Internet anonymity would afford us. Groups like The Well, launched in 1985 as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, grew and offered the kind of conversations that we believed would go far to unlocking the human potential by removing some of the shackles of conventional communication.
But something happened on the way to the garden. Discourse devolved into “flame wars.” Trolls began to populate online discussions, fueled by the power of anonymity and hogging the conversational bandwidth.
A friend remarked, “People wouldn’t say that kind of thing to their mother, so why online?” Why? Because anonymity is a powerful drug.
Yet, anonymity can empower in a positive way as well. Massachusetts’ own well-regarded Outraged Liberal would not be able to bring us thoughtful rants without it; the OL’s position as spokesperson for a prestigious local institution would preclude that kind of writing if it were not for the cloak anonymity afforded by the Internet.
So then – where does that leave us? Signing and verifying our names, as at the bottom of a letter to the editor, or navigating the murky, troll-infested waters of anonymity?
Perhaps it is about unleashing the power of the crowd to self-moderate. I often tell my clients that people recognize the crazy posters. So, let’s vote them off the island. The tools are often provided to us: the option to report a post; the option to recommend a post. For a community to thrive, it must be engaged. Let us use the tools we have at our disposal. You wouldn’t tolerate hate speech from someone at the water cooler, right? No need to do so on line, either.