Top TV Pick # 9: Social Media and Anonymity  

Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal on January 24, 2021, suggested that ending anonymity could fix social media.  Yesterday, Feb. 1, 2021, Mike Masnick wrote a rebuttal to Andy’s column in techdirt, saying it was a bad idea and it wouldn’t help.  Here’s the thing, they’re both right in some ways and also wrong in others. Based on my early experiences with The Well, running IBM’s Prodigy Service’s communication products, and operating a dial-up based bulletin board system out of my New York basement with my friend Rob Kost, anonymity or lack of it, is a big deal.

In all my various online communication roles, one factor I observed was the difference in quality and tone of communications on platforms allowing anonymity and those that did not.  Where users were known and identities could be learned if there was a guideline compliance issue, people tended to be more respectful.  When users were in a situation where they “owned” their words, they tended to be more careful about what they said and how they said it.  Online forums where you could be anonymous frequently saw discussions descend into name-calling and worse. Not only was language uncensored, but since anything was allowed to be posted, some faction was always pushing to get some sort of satisfaction or thrill out of seeing a forbidden thought in print for all to see, or the reaction it caused.  Kessler points to an old cartoon from John “Gabe” Gabriel, who created the webcomic Penny Arcade depicting a green board with the Jerkwad Formula: “Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Jerkwad.” There is real truth to this.

I’ve nothing against anonymous posts, but perhaps they could be separated from areas in which anonymity is not allowed.  That way users can choose not only where they wish to spend their time, but also, how much credence they want to give a particular post.  It’s different when I post under my name or in an area where my real name can easily become known, than if I hide behind a pseudonym.

These guys both frame the issue incorrectly.  It should not be to ban anonymity everywhere online, which would be impossible, but clearly delineate the spaces in which anonymity is allowed and the places where it is not, where you must own your words and be responsible for what you say.  These two options can even exist within the same service.  Facebook, for instance, could allow me an option to only see posts from certified and authentic people, those who’ve proven they are who they say they are.  Others could bypass this and see posts from anyone, authenticated or not. It could be a selectable setting in Preferences.

The above will not offend Masnick’s arguments that forbidding anonymity is unconstitutional.  If you want to post anonymously, go for it.  Masnick’s contention that non-anonymous individuals are worse when using their own names is just counter to every experience I’ve had.  Yes, violence prone people bent on breaking rules will do so under their own names, just like those who stormed the Capital on January 6th.   But it is having consequences for them now, and that is the most important lesson.  Words and actions have consequences when you must own them.  Over time online bullies and trolls get marginalized and shunned, especially when anonymous.

Masnick lists eighteen reasons why people may wish to post using a pseudonym, such as “my name is a nom de plume,” or “I want to keep what I post private from family and relatives,” and/or “I don’t wish to be stalked,” etc.  Fine, it’s okay to allow pseudonyms, it’s just that it needs to be clear to readers where it is okay and where it is not. It is not an abuse of power to require real, authenticated names in some areas and not in others.

So, I think Andy Kessler has raised some good points.  I disagree with attempts to mess around with Section 230 of the Electronics Communications Act, and Kessler does not appear to want that either.  When at the Prodigy Services Company, Brian Ek and I lobbied Congress for this provision and I think online services can’t exist without it.  I know my job attempting to police Prodigy’s Bulletin Boards without this important provision was an untenable nightmare.  But that is another story for another day.

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