Once upon a time, the nom-de-plume was a rarely used device. Today, it’s practically the norm. Back in February, I posted On Anonymity, clarifying some stuff about my general dislike of handles and nicks, and the general trend toward people writing as other than themselves, not standing personally behind their own words.
Anonymity has its advantages. In some respects, it’s one of the net’s strengths. Anonymity enables people in politically oppressive environments to speak freely. And a 14-year-old girl would probably be foolish to use her real name online. But what about everyone else?
Seems like there’s a lot of talk recently about the declining quality of online conversation. Reasonable people with provocative things to say talk about how every time they try to post something thoughtful, they get torn a new one by readers. I certainly post a lot less controversial stuff here than I used to; finally got tired of the sh*tstorms (though few people comment anonymously here).
And then there’s the GIFT Theory (not safe for work).
Listening to the Gillmor Gang tonight on the way home from work, was struck by something unusual: These guys usually disagree on everything. But for a rare change they were unified — all of them just sick to the gills with a zoo of buffoons out there who can’t express opinions civilly, or whose first priority is to knock a thoughtful writer down. They even talked about wanting to set up systems not just to register commenters, but to enforce verification of real names for anyone who wants to comment.
Later in the evening, a similar thread came up on the O’Reilly Mac Blogger’s internal mailing list – writers fed up with endless snarking and small-minded mean-ness from readers lacking the grapes even to use their real names.
There are several things going on here: The decline of politeness in general, an increasingly fragmented and direct public, and fallout from widespread anonymity. I think anonymity is a bigger factor than is given credit for. Compare: How do you express anger to a stranger when you’re driving your car? Would you express yourself the same way to a stranger standing next to you in the checkout line at the grocery store? If not, why not? The distance, the anonymity, does something to people. And it isn’t a pleasant something.