You, anonymous

There's no practical way to enforce accountability on the Web, but a little peer pressure could help. Let's start signing our real names to the comments we post. It would elevate the discourse.
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There's no practical way to enforce accountability on the Web, but a little peer pressure could help. Let's start signing our real names to the comments we post. It would elevate the discourse.

Freedom of speech is our most treasured inalienable right, but every once in a while something happens that makes you wish there were some rules. The latest example of this arrives with my local daily newspaper's decision to let any member of the public append news stories with comments and opinions.

This feels wrong, not because others have usurped the role of the reporter, forcing us to compete with people who have no apparent credentials. Rather, the objection comes from the different rules in effect for the original stories and the comments they draw. Consider that everything a "professional" journalist writes needs to be factual, more or less, and include the author's name (and, today, an e-mail address). But someone posting a response to a story can say pretty much anything they want, true or not. And there is no requirement that they acknowledge responsibility by signing a real name.

Admittedly, dispatches from professional journalists carry no absolute guarantee of veracity and balance. Even so, an anonymous post stands even less chance of truthfulness, since there is often no recognizable person taking responsibility for the message.

If everything we learn originates from a childhood touchstone, we can illustrate the situation in the form of a Goofus and Gallant cartoon, the Highlights magazine feature that has has taught generations of kids comparative etiquette from the vantage point of their doctors' waiting rooms. Here, the behaviorally fraternal twins could be recast as 30-year-old political junkies, with the following posts:

Hillary could be vice president under Obama but she would need to know her place. In 1980 Reagan asked Ford to be VP but Ford said he would only do it if he could be "co-president." Ford was pretty much an idiot, so Reagan picked Daddy Bush, who had fought him all the way in the primaries. Bush knew his place and they won. —Gooferdude I think that the origin of the 1980 election sets the stage here. Reagan approached Ford, who said he would join the ticket if the VP became a "co-president." Reagan wisely declined and selected Bush Sr., who was his most vocal opponent. They joined forces, and won the general. The difference here is that Hillary could be a brilliant VP and Ford was just average. —Gallant LaMontagne, Port Orchard, WA

The difference here is obvious. Goofus is snarky, mean, and inconsiderate, and won't take responsibility for his opinion. Gallant signs his name and expresses the same opinion in a more cogent and less insulting way. This is not to say that everyone should turn into a wuss, just that they need to stand behind what they say. Depending on your viewpoint, you may perceive Al Franken and Ann Coulter as rude, uninformed, or downright idiotic. But they are using their real names and speaking in their own voice.

Not too long ago, the cross-pollination of news Web sites with electronic bulletin boards appeared to be a natural match. It opens up the story, taking the author to task about a point of fact or supporting the article's conclusions with additional examples, organically elevating the overall process into a meeting of minds between the reporter, the public, and the experts.

That's the theory. Instead, we are stuck with responses that are more likely to be nasty, destructive, and in many cases just plain stupid. Bad spelling. Faulty logic. A snotty tone. Since most posters haven't the stones to attach their own names to these rants, there is no accountability and nothing to impose a standard of truth. This goes beyond gender or age uncertainty. You have no idea whom you are really talking to, so you are really just talking to yourself.

Like many aspects of online life, the practice of posting has evolved organically and unsupervised. Along the way, it became natural for people to post their thoughts without attribution. There was no explicit malice or a desire to cloak one's identity, it just seemed natural to attribute the post to a nickname or one that reflects the mood of the moment. So anonymous posting has become the default. Signing your own name feels weird, a little like wearing a suit in a room full of nudists.

Regulating the Internet isn't going to happen, for a lot of good reasons. To recycle another cliche, the Internet is the most disorganzed, chaotic, and unpredictable of all media, but it beats the alternative. Instead, the solution comes from self regulation. The only way to fix this is to change your own behavior and hope that it catches on.

There is a precedent. Remember that littering was once an acceptable practice, that even our parents encouraged us to throw gum wrappers and soda bottles out of the car window. Today, it is a major social crime backed up by legislation, up there with parking in a handicapped space. So even if signing your name to each online statement seems like an insignificant symbolic gesture, it contributes to cleaning up online litter.

Some readers may have already sensed a contradiction, how this strongly worded call for accountability can appear on a site that itself allows anonymous comments. The easy answer is that I am a guest in this house and don't make policy. But even if the bosses here agreed with my viewpoint, it wouldn't be easy to pull off. Many old media places adding comment boards are happy to get anything they can. Requiring names would be intrusive and will slow down the discussion.

News sites have a variety of ways to raise the standards of their message boards, but none of them are particularly effective. Requiring a valid e-mail address as a prerequisite imposes some limits, with a "three strikes" policy revoking privileges. This will only stymie the lowest grade of criminals — the rest of them can just get another e-mail address and join in again. A dirty-word filter can be fooled. A required site membership provides the highest level of accountability.

My informal crusade against anonymity has, until I sat down to write this particular screed, taken a random, unsatisfying form. All of my posts are now under my own real name. No one notices. I scold people about a lack of courage in signing names. They ignore me or send along their own irresponsible response, such as a historical link about Ben Franklin and his use of pseudonyms. It turns out this particular father of our country was so prolific that he wrote both sides of a particular debate under different names. The reader may never be aware, saying something like, "I really like what Silence Dogood said, and how he put Alice Addertongue in her place," not knowing that both viewpoints came from the same pen.

I know who Ben Franklin was, and these anonymous posters today are not Ben Franklin. In Ben's world, the message was so articulate as to make the messenger's identity irrelevant. These days, we need to encourage people to identify themselves, so they are less likely to say something embarrassing and stupid.

The solution is simple and obvious, and a really great message: Tell the truth. Speak your piece. Sign your name.


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