By Jeremy Wagstaff
(this is my weekly syndicated newspaper column, distributed via the Loose Wire Service.)
Someone defaced my Wikipedia page the other day. Yes, it’s absurd that I have a Wikipedia page—ask my, er, fans, about that—but even more absurd that someone should bother enough to deface it.
(Just in case you’re interested, they hinted darkly that my college band wasn’t quite as successful as the page suggests, among other allegations.)
Now I’m not here to talk about Wikipedia, or myself, but about how we relate to each other online. But let’s get the Wikipedia thing out of the way first.
The thing about Wikipedia is that you can edit something in two ways: You can set up an account, in which case other people can see what you’ve changed, or you can do it without creating an account, in which case your Internet address—the computer you’re accessing the web from—is logged.
My detractor did the latter. So all we know so far is that he or she is in London. That narrows it down quite a bit, and my henchmen in that fair city are now combing every corner of it to unearth the miscreant.
Now I mention this because of something else newsworthy: The Sun Chronicle of Massachusetts has just allowed users of its website to comment again on its news stories. Comments were banned in April after they “drove discussions into the gutter—while hiding beneath the veil of anonymity.”
Now comments are back, but you’ve got to hand over a credit card number, your name and community. The paper reckons they’re the first to start doing this.
I wish them luck. In the few days since the new rules have been in place I couldn’t find any comments, but I didn’t look especially hard.
They’re fighting an uphill battle, because their argument is based on a misunderstanding.
They ask: “We would never allow these kind of attacks and crude language in the newspaper; why is it OK online?” Actually, the question goes to the heart of what we’ve been doing online, and why we’ve probably got to do it differently.
Because online people speak their mind. If they’re sure they’re anonymous.
This is basically why you can’t scroll through the comments on a YouTube video without feeling slightly ill. Why even supposedly erudite websites like The Guardian attract a swarm of anonymous venom directed at the writer and other commenters. This is true pretty much everywhere I’ve looked. Which is why The Sun Chronicle threw its hands up in despair.
Anonymity is great for certain things. In repressive regimes. To avoid data mining marketing types wanting to find out your thoughts. To share painful and personal details in online discussions.
But it’s also broken down our sense of shame. Things we’d never say or do we do and say online because we’re pretty sure we’re not going to be found out. With every caustic remark or snarky put-down we feel a bit smarter, and we make everyone else feel a bit less comfortable.
It’s not all like this. The early Internet was a model of cooperation, often to complete strangers who were anonymous. Now I see people on some sites still going to extraordinary lengths to help answer other people’s questions, solve their problems, with no possibility of personal gain.
In one recent case news that the bassist of a great 1980s band, Japan, circulated on a mailing list, along with word that he had fallen on hard times and didn’t have medical insurance.
Quickly there was a whip-round on the mailing list. People bought memorabilia, sent money by PayPal, prompting a heartfelt thank you from the patient. It was wonderful to witness.
Indeed, my sense is that the smaller the group, the more caring and thoughtful people are. They’re sometimes catty, and don’t always agree, but on the mailing lists I’ve followed they seem genuinely keen to help and share. Many smaller software developers rely on this feedback mechanism to improve their applications.
So back to the Sun Chronicle. They are comparing apples with oranges: readers’ letters they would print, and online comments. Of course, they’re not the same thing. One is a community, the other just pretends to be. In the old days writing a letter to the newspaper involved thought, effort and a stamp. Now you can comment on something just by clicking a button.
One was designed to share a perspective with all readers—and the editor—much as one might stand up at a town-hall meeting. An online comment is more akin to a heckle at a sports game, where your cussing is spontaneous—and hopefully drowned out by your fellow fans. Hopefully; it would be awkward if the player, or ref, or whoever you aimed your abuse at, heard you and, David Beckham-like, came over for a chat.
Anonymous comments are anonymous because the author doesn’t want to be held to those remarks. If I found the person who defaced the Wikipedia page, I’m sure they’d be a tad embarrassed. But unfortunately the solution is not to end anonymity, because that supposes those same people will now offer their comments in a more tempered, community-minded way.
Of course, they won’t. They probably won’t comment. They’ll go off somewhere else.
Which might not be a bad thing. But if we all insist on credit cards, names and addresses, a lot of the oxygen that social media relies on will disappear. Websites like Sun Chronicle may attract some comments from people, but nothing like before. Likewise with the traffic to the site, which is likely to have been fed by the vibrant, if somewhat unpleasant, comment threads it spawned.
And there’s the rub. Because we haven’t figured out yet how to make money from these news sites, that traffic may end up being more important to our survival than the sense of decorum we’ll recover if we turn the comment spigot off.
Now I know you’re all going off to deface my Wikipedia page. I’ll be watching.