Paul Carr (formerly of the Guardian, now of TechCrunch and the Telegraph) has long railed against the anonymous trolls of the comments section. In a recent column he dug up posthumous intellectual support for his argument, quoting a passage from Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature on the evils of anonymity:
“Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality. It is a practice which must be completely stopped. Every article, even in a newspaper, should be accompanied by the name of its author; and the editor should be made strictly responsible for the accuracy of the signature.”
…and so on and so forth. Carr is implying that anonymity is rubbish therefore anonymous comments are also rubbish. Belatedly, here’s why I disagree.
We’re still in the early stages; idiocy is inevitable
It’s a general rule of life – and therefore, the internet – that when you like something you tell 3 people, and when you don’t like something you tell 10. When open, anonymous comment sections started appearing all over the web, it gave the latter the latter a platform for their anger. You could immediately add your tuppence to the thoughts of esteemed writers, and your comment would be tied to their thoughts forever more. Suddenly, the Chapel of High Thought was democratized. Brilliant.
The same, of course, goes for the idiots. Open comments allows them to immediately associate their faceless idiocy with a piece of wonderful critique, and it would be there forever more. Mr or Mrs Big Columnist could write a seminal essay in the intricacies of fiscal stimulus, and the first comment, forever more, could read “yeah, but tax is just a load of willy, and so are you.”
This is very annoying, and certainly not what the internet democratisers intended. And one can understand Carr’s annoyance… it’s a modern interpretation of a schoolground foible: if you want to say something about me, what not say it to my face (in comment land; with a face)?
But the idiocy is probably temporary. We must remember that we’re still in the early stages of internet evolution. It is understandable that the anonymous idiots are very excited about this new open platform for idiocy. Let them write “willy” wherever they want to write “willy”. They will get bored.
Yes, some of the idiots are pretty horrible (“willy” is usually more spitefully termed) – I’ve been flamed before, and it wasn’t nice. I wanted to peel away the anonymity of my flamers, and clip them round the ear for being fools. But then I stopped caring, because I realised the idiots were an occupational hazard. And they are also a minority.
Ignore the trolls, and rouse the silent majority
Think of the troll as a rebellious, nihilistic teenager (many of them are). They want attention, desperately. Don’t give it to them by showing that they’ve got your back up. Don’t tell them off, as it will just provoke them. Don’t get into a mudslinging match either, because they are better cussers than you. There’s just no point. Indeed, to pinch a brilliant recent quote from Barney Frank, it’s like trying to argue with a dining room table.
Crucially, wasting column inches giving oxygen to the vocal minority, and arguing that anonymity should be withdrawn, is extremely unfair to the (albeit quieter) majority.
Earlier in the year, a superb post by comedian David Mitchell roused this silent majority into action. In it he scratched a few itches, ridiculing those who have left nasty comments about him on the web, but then suggested a wonderful way of dealing with the nastiness:
A friend of mine has come up with an idea to stem the tide of bile. He wants people to post, as a comment, on as many opinion-garnering web pages as possible, as often as they can be bothered, the phrase: “It just goes to show you can’t be too careful!” It’s perfect; it seems lighthearted without being a joke. It’s vaguely pertinent to almost any subject without meaning a thing. It’s the ideal oil for the internet’s troubled waters.
The comments left on this post are fascinating. The first five or six were left by trolls, and were offensive enought to be deleted. The remaining 1500 read “It just goes to show you can’t be too careful!” The silent majority were speaking, and rather than railing against the idiots and getting drawn into the fight, they were being actively aloof. It was like a peaceful sit-in against the idiots. A comment-in. Bravo them.
It was the perfect demonstration. We, the good people of the internet, need to show off about our good behavior. We need to break out from our gently smiling inactivity to write “nice post” three times every time we see a “willy”. The comments on Mitchell’s post showed that the good people of the internet will win, because we are more numerous.
Don’t whip off the mask
Anonymity is one of the internet’s most beautiful things. Yes, it can go too far, and when it goes too far, it has to be stopped (Google, as owners of Blogger, were this week ordered by a New York court to hand over the identity of an anonymous blogger who was defaming a model, fair enough.)
But in most cases anonymity is empowering. You can comment without fear, and without people knowing your place within the internet society. Make all comments attributed and you’ve immediately got a class system where the big dogs rule and the little dogs mean nothing.
Cutting off anonymous comments for all would be punishing the many for the indiscretions of the few…. like defining and punishing a religion because of its fundamentalists.
The trolls are an inevitable by-product of internet freedom, and they are having a whale of a time during these heady, free-for-all early days. But everyone gets bored of show-offs, and they will disappear. We certainly shouldn’t give them too much attention, or threaten to blanket ban anonymity, as it’s unfair to the well-behaved majority. The well-behaved majority should be more vocal, and we’ll all live happily ever after.
First person to leave a stupid comment wins a cupcake.
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