Why Online Comments Are So Toxic
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Online anonymity creates a sense of a culture without consequences. Think of that tween who posted a video on YouTube of his own abuse of a 68-year-old bus monitor. The Internet limitlessly expands the possibilities for unkindness and waywardness and misbehavior (and, yeah, for community-building, too -- Internet users raised $700,000 for that bus monitor, and now she's retiring). Lots of folks who would never step foot in a whorehouse happily watch Internet porn.
Anonymous comments once embodied the promise of the Internet, the supposed democracy of the place, and their defenders say that privacy is what we must prize the most. But I'm not sure donning an alternate identity, hiding behind a screen, is the same thing as privacy. There is a movement to eradicate, or at least reduce, anonymous commenting, in the hopes that it will seal up this space between our lives online and off. Many sites require readers to log in through social media to comment, so that they are, in theory, linked to their real-life selves.
Personally, I resist such cross log-ins. I'm not much of a commenter myself, save for when the New York Times covered the controversy at my local food co-op over whether or not to carry six Israeli-made products. And all I said was: Why is this story in the New York Times? (It turns out that a disproportionate number of New York Times employees shop there, and thus were under the mistaken impression that this constituted news.) But I don't necessarily want all my Facebook friends to read that comment -- that was, I hoped, for the Times' editorial staff.
One of the strangest things about the commenters from that Brooklyn blog was that many of them had in-person relationships. They held regular meetups in local bars, attaching a face, if not their real names, to their screen personas. And for a few days after these gatherings, the comments would be less vitriolic, as if the civility of the evening leaked onto the virtual pages of our site.
Did The What ever attend, skulk in the background and sip brandy while watching the blog devotees socialize? He could have been anyone, of any race or either sex. But he never attached a face to his online name.
Perhaps, like a lot of people, The What simply wanted to articulate his worldview. You can't ask why trolls do what they do without asking why people argue in general, and people do that, says Morin, because they want to assert their own rectitude. "They really want to be right, and prove a point," says Morin. "And the magic of the Internet does the rest."