If your website's full of anonymity, that might be okay

Hmm, lots of interesting responses to If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault, and even more interesting conversation about the topic of commenting culture in general. A few highlights from the last few days:

My wonderful friend Caterina Fake on Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software:

The point I think is this: Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups. There’s even a comprehensive list of people harmed by Real Names policies. In the cases where pseudonyms are being abused, it is the harm that should be stopped, not the pseudonyms.

Caterina wonderfully makes a point that I didn’t emphasize enough in my original post on this topic: I fully support, and believe in, the importance of pseudonymity and anonymity on the web, for many social, political and cultural reasons. In fact, I have argued in favor of these points enough that I can probably reconstruct from memory the anti-pseudonym bingo card created by the always-quotable folks at Geek Feminism. And that will come in handy because of responses to my post like If your comment section is awesome, it’s your community’s fault over at TechDirt.

Now, I like TechDirt, and I agree with Timothy Geigner’s point that anonymity can have enormous value on the web, but he creates a straw man reading of my argument and then attacks it, culminating in this absolutely wrong-headed assertion:

I apologize for repeating myself, but I can’t say this enough: words do not hurt. They never do. When someone says something designed to inflict pain, you get to choose how to react and respond. If an anonymous coward calls me an idiot and my response is, “Nice argument there, captain logic”, then what has that person accomplished? I’m not hurt, they’ve put themselves on display being a jerk, and the community at large will react accordingly.

This is, simply put, an argument of privilege. The idea that “words do not hurt” is only true for those who are privileged and empowered enough to not know the impact they can have. Obviously, Timothy’s missed the entire “it gets better” campaign, or is presumably going around telling suicidal teenagers that they’re just being wimps and should get over it.

More to the point, the comments we allow on a site determine its culture. This isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing — many great sites can, and do, allow vigorously dissenting or unpopular views, from anonymous or pseudonymous commenters, without degenerating into cesspools of unkindness. But if a site allows racist or sexist or hateful comments to persist in its conversations, as Timothy suggests they ought to do, then they’re not merely giving a home to an awful conversation. Instead, that site owner is signifying to members of the groups being attacked that they would rather profit from the page views of the people leaving those comments than make a welcoming, inclusive space for the people being attacked.

I don’t feel comfortable in places where people say I look like a terrorist. It doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned, or that I want to censor people. It just means that if that happens in an establishment and the owner thinks, “eh, just tell him he’s a jerk, but I’ll still take his money”, then I know not to frequent that establishment again. I love a lot of the arguments and conversations that TechDirt inspires, but knowing that at least one of its authors thinks it’s more important to host hateful conversations than to make a comfortable, welcoming space for reasonable people is lame. I think they can do better, and I hope they do.

But what I am not advocating is the argument Tim Adams makes in the Guardian, essentially arguing all conversations should use “real names” (however that term is defined). Caterina makes the point well, but it’s worth repeating: Accountability and anonymity are not opposites. Contrary to the ravings of many online, encouraging a positive community is not the same thing as censorship. And the responsibility that I was speaking to in my post is about making an environment that is welcoming to those who want to share their ideas, not just those who are willing to get into stupid fights with strangers to do so.

Perhaps the best way to close is with the wise words of Chris Poole, who innately understands the balance of the freedom of anonymity with the social costs of allowing truly unfettered speech. 4chan is certainly a place where only a small percentage of people who visit are going to feel comfortable, and because of all the creative ideas that have been spawned there, I’m glad it exists. But I know Chris wouldn’t want the whole web to have the same standards that 4chan does, and unfortunately that seems to be the way that many web communities are headed, except without the tendency to invent as many parts of web culture as that community does. Maybe my phrasing was a bit crude, but that worst-of-both-worlds compromise is exactly what I think we can prevent.