Anyone who has spent even the most trivial amount of time perusing websites like YouTube and Facebook know the value of the Internet comment. Discourse, if it could be called that, has ventured down the rabbit hole to an absurd conflation of abuse, misinformation and assumption. It is difficult, if nearly impossible, to have a lucid, logical conversation in the comments sections of even the most sophisticated online destinations.
Part of the problem, some analysts contend, is the role of anonymity in our online culture. Being anonymous tends to provide the cover of courage, like having a few beers, and commenters are more likely to abuse their fellow humans if they can hide their identities. Some proclaim “It’s just the internet,” as though there isn’t another person on the other end of the conversation.
This distant treatment of the Internet, like it’s some kind of game, has prevented many from choosing to engage in conversation or healthy dialogue. YouTube has long been a bastion for absurdity in its comment sections, with entire blogs set up to mock dumb comments and arguments persisting underneath even the most mundane clips. You can even set up a filter to avoid them.
YouTube, for its part, is aware of the problem and has been encouraging commenters to use their real names. A policy change instituted at the end of June allows users the option of logging in and commenting with their Google+ profiles or their real names. While acknowledging that using real names isn’t for everyone, YouTube does try to encourage people to drop the cloak of namelessness.
Of course, that opens up a bag of questions. How does one know if a commenter is using his or her real name, for one thing? And aren’t there some privacy issues with forcing people to reveal themselves?
The fact is that politeness in discourse of any kind can’t be bought or legislated.
Still, YouTube is trying. Anyone putting in a new comment will be greeted with a pop-up with the current user name and a comparison to what the comment would look like with the real name and/or Google+ name. If users insist on using their anonymous user names, YouTube actually asks them why with another dialogue box that offers more than a few ways out of the experience.
In the past, Google has fought the scourge of anonymity by attempting to prohibit pseudonyms from their Google+ profiles. It didn’t take.
There have even been attempts to legislate away the problem, with the most recent kick at the can coming in the form of Bill S6779, which says that any comment left online without a verifiable legal name, IP address and home address can be subject to removal.
Bills like S6779 go too far in eroding the privacy rights of Internet users who, like it or not, are entitled to a certain degree of privacy – for now. Obviously there are concerns to be addressed, like the issue of cyber-bullying and its contemptible cousins in the realm of online abuse, but the answers won’t come easy as we walk the line between privacy and propriety.