When I first started posting my writing online, I kept an open door to anonymous comments when the sites where I posted allowed me to do so. In my mind, someone had just read my work and had some amazingly insightful thought about it and went to comment and … she wasn’t a member of the site, didn’t want to be a member of the site, and so just went away, and I was bereft of her insights. In my naivete, I failed to appreciate how most people use anonymity online, but I wasn’t long catching on. Within a few months of starting to post some of my work there, I disallowed anonymous comments on Fanfiction.net. I don’t remember well enough to say that they were all nasty and vitriolic, but most certainly were … and many registered members of Fanfiction.net aren’t known for their skills in diplomacy. I decided that I could give up that one amazing insight if it saved me from the other ninety-nine comments containing nothing but loathsome vitriol.
Last week, the New York Times published an article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on anonymous commenting that makes the same observations as I did some years ago on Fanfiction.net. Brodesser-Akner considers the theory that anonymous online snarkiness arises because we have evolved mechanisms to control our social interactions based on face-to-face interactions. Online, without the facial and body-language cues of our conversation partners to tell us when we’ve crossed the line (and the attendant negative emotions that come with such disapproval from a fellow human), we’re left in the dark and can say things that we’d never dream of saying in a face-to-face interaction.
I’ve often observed the same of people in cars. Most people won’t even shush a chatterbox in a movie theater, but the meekest granny will give you the finger for cutting her off. I notice my own perception changing as I drive and become irritated: Suddenly, I am not annoyed with other people but with cars. I perceive the behavior as coming not from a person but from a car and, likewise, any of my own aggression is aimed at a person but at the car, an insensate and lifeless hunk of metal from which I don’t have to fear censure or disapproval.
The same happens online. I know many of the people with whom I regularly communicate. Some of them I have even met. When I read their comments and their emails, I hear their voices in my mind and see their faces. Sometimes, I know what a person looks like from pictures; other times, I have communicated so much–often in more spontaneous forums like instant messenger–with a person that I have developed a voice for that person, despite having never heard her voice. But an interesting thing happens with people whom I know online but do not know well. Just as I come to associate my friends with a face, a photo, a tone of voice, so I come to associate acquaintances with the icons that they use most often. I see that person’s name, and her icon flashes into my mind. Perhaps this is my mind’s way of making sense of faceless communications: by creating a face of whatever handily associates itself with a particular name.
Anonymous comments allow none of that. I have received the rare unsigned comment on my work on LiveJournal, and without any clue as to whom I communicating with, the voice takes on a flat, featureless quality as I read. And it is difficult to respond to such comments too. Everything that I say feels insincere or, if I’m simply talking shop about my writing, overly clinical. I am no longer talking to a person but a blank white box with no notion of who sits on the receiving end.
The NYT article links to a related post by Connie Schultz that delves even deeper into the effects of anonymity online:
It makes for many an ugly day, discouraging thoughtful discussions and repelling readers who don’t have the stomach for the daily dose of vitriol. … Some argue that allowing anonymity is a way of outing the bigots among us. But reading multiple posts, often by the same person using a variety of identities, amplifies voices and exaggerates numbers. The haters are small in number, but they are tenacious, and the resulting echo chamber fuels a growing climate of fear and rage born of false impressions.
Or: sockpuppetry, as we’d call it in fandom. One person with abhorrent views and a lack of civility can create the impression of consensus where none exists. Suddenly, those who play nicely, who are “only here to have fun,” feel like they are marooned on an island in hostile waters. I remember when it seemed people were quitting Fanfiction.net in droves due to the general tone of uncivility there propagated by a few people with multiple accounts; the heads on the hydra that, lobbed off for ToS violation, would spring back in a newly vicious permutation. We still get the occasional registration on SWG from a writer who’s never posted off of Fanfiction.net and wincingly asserts that she can “take concrit” but “doesn’t flame.” Since policies both allowing concrit and banning flames are codified into SWG’s rules, these assertions, to me, speak far more about writers who have become hand-shy in a toxic environment that makes no attempt at insisting on accountability.
When we were working to open the SWG’s story archive, we were faced with a number of choices about what we would and would not allow. I was and am open to many different possibilities, but one thing I continue to insist upon is that anonymous comments will have no place on our site. If you want to communicate with an author, then you can register for an account. It takes ten seconds, and you need never visit us or be bothered by us again. But it creates accountability, however little, and associates comments with an identity.
In Schultz’s article, she notes the same thing. She has experienced with a Facebook page to connect with her readers and finds greater civility there. Now commenters have names and most have pictures associated with their names as well. Though she “knows” very few of them, they nonetheless possess an identity. She writes, “A not-so-amazing thing happens when people feel safe: They start to speak their minds. Dozens, mostly women, tell me they have never before expressed their opinions so publicly.” Does that sound familiar to anyone else but me?