I must admit I like the anarchic internet. It’s perhaps the first large-scale experiment in human behavior in an anarchic environment that isn’t a war-torn country, but rather a stable medium. It’s also, of course, a medium that allows for an unprecedented anonymity, or rather, pseudonymity. The premise that the internet is anarchic is perhaps not one to throw out without justification; there are, of course, some tangible ties to government, but at the same time no one has quite gotten a handle on how to actually govern it without shutting it down completely. Thus illicit business happens all the time, and so far no one has been able to clamp down on it with any consistency. Some of this illegal business I believe to be immoral, such as child pornography networks; others, such as the sale of drugs or noncommercial copyright infringement, I don’t consider to be inherently immoral.
It is the least governed space in modern society. The sphere least affected by the enforcement of laws of any kind. I’m not denying there have been many instances where governments have punished law-breakers on the internet, whether they be child pornographers or Aaron Swartz, whether they be immoral abusers or believers in the principle that science should be freely accessible to the people. But in comparison to any other sphere of society, the degree of law enforcement is insanely low.
This explosive combination of anarchy and anonymity, of course, comes with a number of drawbacks, but also with upsides. I’ve always been a big believer in the liberating power of pseudonymity, the dominant mode of interaction on the internet. I am now writing under my real name, but when I started this blog I used only my first name and it took me years to be comfortable enough to put my name to my writings. I’ve written a lot about the reasons for this: one is the lack of ephemerality; the internet is a permanent medium. Once you’ve said something, it doesn’t dissipate in the air. It’s like an unstoppable information-gathering black hole; only a few specks of Hawking radiation make it out, but often the things you’d want most to disappear are the ones that you cannot make go away, while valuable information may be lost. There’s no predicting what will stay available indefinitely, stored away on servers spread across the globe, and what will disappear once someone pulls the plug on a server. There are billions of dead links but many of those are the sort you want to keep alive, while the ones you want to kill off are sucked into the black hole of the internet, this massive gravitational anomaly that just sucks information in, spreads it across innumerable nodes and just won’t let go.
When I started blogging, before Tumblr even existed, before this blog, I was an immature teenager. I was debating everything from programming technicalities to analytic philosophy to pop culture on blogs and forums, all under the guise of various nicknames, pseudonyms, and I learned a lot from it, but I wasn’t mature enough and had enough awareness of psychology to understand that, while I felt strongly about everything I wrote, I would probably come to regret some of it later. Fifty years ago, conversations between teenagers (or adults) were carried out in person, and there were limitations on how far and wide what was said could spread. Now you could, with a little sleuthing, find stuff I would vehemently oppose today but, like any normal teenager, felt strongly about at some point, and drag it out and smear me with it today. Ephemeral conversations are rare in a medium that seems to fix everything permanently into the annals of history. You’re not allowed to find peer groups and discuss things and then later have it be forgotten on the internet. In the past, when such conversations would be held in person, being young was more forgivable.
At the same time, not revealing my name and age allowed me to be taken seriously by adults, to discuss things on even terms with them, and even if I’ve come to regret or reverse my stance on many things over the years, a lot of what I said was true, a lot of my arguments were sound, and I was able to earn the respect of elders on simple merit, because none of them could tell who I was. I was nothing but what I wrote, and that stood or fell on its own merits. I learned a lot about rhetoric and logic and how to discuss things in a serious manner, how to lay out a good argument, how to build a case for an opinion or a stance, by trial and error. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if not for the internet and its mode of pseudonymity. I credit a lot of my intellectual prowess, such as it is, to learning on the internet, to being allowed to engage with people who were smarter, more well educated, more well informed with me on the level of an equal. Especially for a bright kid–though certainly no genius–this was fantastic. I come from a country whose ideology of education is that everyone is equal, everyone is to learn everything at the same pace; if they lag behind, they are given help, but there is actually active opposition to the idea of nurturing the opposite end of the Bell curve, those who are ahead. Since I was given no opportunities to range further than the standard curriculum in school, since there was no one there to allow me to develop my potential into something real, the internet was a real savior in that regard.
I’ve always been a big fan and proponent of this mode of pseudonymity, which I distinguish from anonymity as I think there’s an important distinction and it’s pseudonymity that is the dominant mode in most internet communities. People go by nicknames, hiding their real identity, but the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity is that pseudonyms persist over time. You may be AnonymousKid99 on a forum, and no one knows if you’re a dog or a Nobel prize recipient, but at least your pseudonym persists over time, allowing you to establish real relations with people, allowing you to gain or lose a reputation on merit.
Of course, pseudonymity offers its challenges. The great experiment that is the internet has proven that people are far more likely to engage in what we in scientific terms call “being an asshole” when they can hide their real identity. Trolls and assholes of other kinds have been a scourge on internet communities since their inception. Sometimes the entire atmosphere of a community is one of playful trolling, in which the unspoken rule is that nothing is serious, and so trolling becomes something of a comedic act when done right. But in more serious communities, assholes, bullies and trolls, overlapping roles, do real harm. They hurt people–words can sting more than blows sometimes–and they hurt communities. Real discussions are disrupted by irrelevancies or nastiness, and what could have been a constructive community of equals who respect one another and discuss intellectual disagreements in a civil tone falls apart.
Of course, as predicted by anarchist theorists, when presented with an environment with very little regulation, people will self-organize into smaller units and impose and enforce their own rules. I’m not convinced at all this would work in “the real world” of flesh and blood; I’m convinced that it would create a nasty world of might makes right, where exploitation of the weaker by the stronger is the norm. I am not a believer in anarchy as a political philosophy. But on the internet, I would argue, to some extent it has worked. Moderated internet communities have become the norm. Disruptive members are banned, disruptive actions are removed or punished. Every owner of a community is free to set their own rules.
But still, the problem of trolls, which henceforth I’ll use as a catch-all phrase for disruptive elements, whether they fall into the Urban Dictionary definition of an internet troll or not, persists. So what to do about it? For two decades, the norm was pseudonymity. Now, many online communities are encouraging or even requiring you to supply your real identity in an effort to curb trolling, on the pretty much proven theory that people are less likely to engage in trolling if they have to attach it to their real identity. The other approach to dealing with trolling, of course, is stringent moderation. Keep a fair set of rules and have the manpower to enforce them. Delete trolling comments, ban persistent trolls. This approach takes a lot of work, but preserves pseudonymity.
Newspapers have tried, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to become community hubs on par with other web forums. They want the discussion about their news to occur on their own turf, where they can monetize it, instead of scattered across the blogosphere and communities run by third parties. At first, they started in the familiar mode of pseudonymity, or even outright anonymity, allowing people to comment on their articles under whatever name they chose. But increasingly, as has been the trend elsewhere on the internet–see: Facebook and its intellectual predecessors–they have begun to argue for or enforce a real name policy in order to avoid trolls. At least punish evildoers by forcing them to stand by their bad behavior under their real names.
The comment that provoked this article was below an online newspaper article, detailing the rules and expected conduct in the comments section. It went something like this: “
We’d really like to know what you think about this topic. We wish that you register, because it makes it makes the arguments and viewpoints more interesting. If you have special reasons for wanting to comment unregistered, contact us and explain yourself. We may make exceptions.”
This is such absolute bullshit that it should sear the heart of anyone with an elementary grasp on logic. The words “ad hominem” are overused on the internet, but I’m gonna throw ‘em in anyway. By registering and being held accountable for your comments, your arguments become stronger and your viewpoints more interesting. This is, of course, not the case at all. An argument is a logical sequence following a series of premises through a series of logical operations until a conclusion is reached. It is valid if the conclusion follows from the premises, and sound if it is valid and the premises are true, i.e., it’s sound if it’s a good argument with a true conclusion. What makes a viewpoint interesting is, of course, subjective, but in an intellectual discussion it is almost always predicated on its content, not its point of origin. General relativity isn’t interesting because Albert Einstein is an interesting figure; it’s interesting because it is a whole new way of looking at the world that has withstood many tests and proven to be one of the most accurate descriptions of how the physical world works we have. Einstein the man is interesting because his viewpoints had intellectual merit; whatever his personal eccentricities, they would quickly be forgotten by all but his close friends and associates if not for the fact that he discovered a whole new way of accurately describing the real world.
Your arguments should stand on their own merit. The above hogwash is only a cover for we’re too lazy or understaffed to properly moderate our comment sections, and we’re too proud to admit it, so instead we’ll pretend as if ad hominem is a virtue, not a flaw, as if an argument gains logical force because we can track you down and hold you accountable for trolling should you decide to engage in such behavior. Fucking appalling.
I’ve mentioned two key points about anonymity or pseudonymity that I think have tremendous value even if you’re not a whisteblower who could lose his job, his reputation and his freedom, or even not his life if his identity were known. That have value even if you’re not an Edward Snowden or a mob informant under witness protection. Ephemerality, the quality of being able to test out an argument, or an identity, or just have an informal conversation that, even if recorded for posterity, will not forever be tied to and easily connected with your real identity. And meritocracy: the ability to be heard and treated as an equal, to avoid ad hominem attacks, to be taken seriously even if you happen to be young, or a woman, or a Muslim, or gay, or any of the other myriad cognitive biases people have that they transpose onto valid arguments and thus discredit them on an irrational basis, not on the basis that should count: whether it’s a valid argument and whether what you’re saying is true.
This lazy approach to the problem of anonymous trolling concerns me. I’m afraid of an internet in the future where everything you say anywhere that matters will be directly tied to your real identity, thus losing ephemerality and a system of evaluating opinions and arguments on merit alone.
Since I wanted a fancy title, I made up a Latin expression. I hope the internet doesn’t fall into the honey trap of Ad Hominem Propter Trollum. Don’t worry, I’m not a classicist showing off: I admit I used a dictionary and have no idea if the sentence is even grammatical in Latin. Ad hominem is the familiar fallacy; propter means “because of”; trollum is a made-up neo-Latinate word because Latin doesn’t have a word either for the original creature of Norse folklore or the anonymous internet heckler. Naturally, since neither existed in Roman culture. But it’s good enough for me because I read an article about some guy who really does know his Latin and translated The Hobbit into Latin, and he chose to use the word “trollum” for the trolls in that book.
It’s a honey trap because it seems so delicious, to get rid of the majority of those pesky trolls so easily, with so little effort expended; but on the other hand, it loses a lot of what made the internet such a great place for discussions and debate. The qualities of ephemerality–you can walk away from your name and your words at any time, and none of it can come back to haunt you years later, dug up from an old archive, taken out of context, with no consideration for the fact that people grow up, mature, change opinions–and of intellectual meritocracy.