George Mason Law School

The electronic mob mentality

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March 18, 2008

4:12 PM

This week, Kentucky Representative Tim Couch proposed to ban anonymous internet posting. It’s an illogical pitch, all but guaranteed to fail — even Couch acknowledges that his law would be next-to-impossible to enforce. Despite his draconian proposal, though, I have to admire Couch’s spirit.

p. Since Web 2.0 and the ascendancy of the blogosphere, anonymous internet discourse has run amok and then some. Need proof? Look no further than The Flat Hat’s website, where, at this moment, alumni, students, faculty and strangers are trolling the comments section, lobbing ad hominem attacks and taking nonsensical tangents wherever possible.

p. The notion of reasoned electronic dialogue has lost all efficacy. Detached from reality, unattributed and untraceable, these excoriating commenters encourage the grisliest side of human nature. They are out for virtual blood.

p. Web 2.0 developments are often hailed for their democratizing, empowering potential. Everyone has a voice, say the techno-pundits — no argument there. Behind a keyboard, an unspecified web-user has exceptional clout. But we’ve stumbled upon yet another example — as if we needed one more — of Lord Acton’s famous aphorism that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

p. In theory, there’s something charming about anonymity. Who hasn’t yearned, at times, to escape the automatic judgment of a community, to remove the constraints of name and reputation?

p. To be, in other words, someone completely different? In our social circles, we’re all known for our various facets, our personalized pros and cons. Internet anonymity preserves an otherwise impossible degree of individual freedom. At the click of a button, we can be whomever or whatever we want.

p. It comes as no surprise, then, that many of us abuse the privilege of facelessness, indulging our basest urges without fear of repercussion. What anonymity truly signifies is the absence of culpability. Think of it as a sort of tragedy of the commons, where “the commons” is all of cyberspace. No one owns up to the trash they leave. Recently, unnamed web-surfers have told me that I have no career beyond that of a postal worker. They’ve accused me of peddling smut and secreting weapons. One guy declared that I “exemplify the rot” at the College. I’ve since switched antiperspirants.

p. What response do these harangues deserve? Lee Siegel, a culture critic blogger for The New Republic, gave the baddies a taste of their own medicine, and paid royally for it. After unknown visitors labeled him a pedophile and a pervert, among other things, Siegel commented anonymously on his own article, praising himself and lambasting the cowardly haters. He intended the stunt as a joke; instead, he was ousted and suspended by the magazine. His new book, “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob,” rails brilliantly against the symptoms of internet culture. I’d send a copy to each of my detractors, but I’m poor. And, oh wait, I don’t know where they live.

p. Lifehackers.com, a popular netiquette site, suggests a simpler solution in its “Guide to Weblog Comments.” It says, “Do not feed or tease the trolls. Don’t let the terrorists win.” Other guidelines include, “Don’t post when you’re angry, upset, drunk or emotional,” and, “Remember that nobody likes a know-it-all.”

p. Regardless of our defenses, we’ll never curb these author-less screeds. Identity, especially virtual identity, is a fragile thing. When the hate-mongers embrace anonymity, they forget that there are actual humans on the other side of the screen. It’s as if recondite pseudonyms exempt them — and thus everyone in the world — from personhood.

p. Should The Flat Hat ban anonymous comments of its own volition? Against my freedom-loving instincts, I’m afraid so. The escapist joys of anonymity come, at least for this newspaper’s audience, at too great a cost. If properly moderated, the website would allow for intelligent discussions galore. As it is, we get nothing more than piss sessions.

p. That’s perhaps the worst part about writing this piece: In an ironical twist, I’m powerless to stop the snarky jeers that will appear below this column before long.

p. Go ahead, nameless ruffians. Let the expletives fly. Give wing to your hatred. You’ll only prove me right.

p. __Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.__

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