Sunday, November 18, 2007

Jud Bennett Got Me Thinking...

Note: This is a re-posting of a comment I made this morning over at First State Politics. Jud Bennett posted a Jud's Rant that touched a chord and led me to get some ideas out that I'd like to share here as well. I have done some slight re-writing, and added links, to help this stand on its own. Thanks for the inspiration, Jud!

I mostly agree with Jud Bennett's post this morning at First State Politics: How to make Blogging truly legitimate?
Frankly, I hate published anonymity, especially when people take mean spirited shots at others or about any significant issue.
I have made similar arguments in the past, but I have come to think there may be a legitimate place for what I think of as "somewhat anonymous" blogging.

The problem with forcing people to blog as themselves all the time is two-fold. First, it is forcing people to do something, which I'm not crazy about. And, second, the cloak of anonymity may, in certain circumstances, work to our advantage as readers.

I am not a Libertarian, though I place value on some libertarian precepts. I don't think we should have complete personal freedom tempered only by common sense and decency. Let's face it, some people are assholes. Some people are stupid. Some people are violent. Some are all three. There should be some laws and societal controls to help us temper our nasty habits.

This is part of why we have religion. This is part of why we have government and laws. This is why we have etiquette and shame.

But speech is not violence, or fraud, or thievery. Yes, there are many many anonymous dickheads on the internet who spoil discussions, deface news stories, and probably could use a good thumping. But we are not really hurt by their actions. Annoyed, yes. But not substantially harmed.

Meanwhile, there are people who can say things anonymously that they cannot say as themselves. Often these are things that are important and useful. Some may fear to speak before their employers or families. Some may also be so painfully shy as to be unable to participate fully as "themselves." And a little fogging of on-line identity helps us remove the old filters of race, sex, and nationality that can sometimes stand between a person's words and our understanding of those words.

There is an honorable history of anonymous (or pseudonymous) publication; the pamphlet Common Sense and The Federalist Papers spring to mind. There are others.

Also, while I may not know exactly who "Disbelief" is when he is at home, or who "LetMyPeopleKnow" is (though I have some suspicions), I have come to know them through their comments on blogs and the News Journal web site. There are many people I have "met" in this way on-line. When I see their comments they fit for me into a pattern and a history of discussion, and so I can make sense of their ideas (or know to discount them).

Some of these folks are people whose comments I read with interest; while I may disagree with them, I have respect for their thoughts. Some others I know, from past experience, to be trolls, fools, or jackasses. The point is, I can make a judgment, based on past knowledge. So, while I couldn't pick them out of a crowd, I do know who they are, on-line.

This is different from those who comment as "Anonymous." The postings of these people, who lack even the courage of a consistent nom-de-web, I hold in lower regard. Except, sometimes, an "Anon" will throw-in a very funny one-off line that makes me smile. (An exception? That rule must true)

I've written before about my personal credo, distilled from years of thought and study: "Try not to be an Asshole." (It looks like I tempered my language a bit in that posting) I try to let this guide my time on-line. I also use it as a yardstick against which to measure the comments of others.

We all have to make a choice about how to handle our on-line identity. I have chosen to always post and comment as Mike Mahaffie, or mmahaffie. Across all of the web. And, despite temptation from my dark side, I have not broken that vow since I made it (to myself) several years ago. Others have chosen and stuck with usernames (handles) and have established on-line identities under those names. I think there is a legitimate place for this approach.

I spend time on an on-line community called MetaFilter, where there are more pseudonymous users than not. The community of users, as it grows to know these people, learns who to trust, who to ignore, and who they should bother to argue with. When someone tries to "troll" a thread (start a fight, derail the discussion, etc.), they are fairly quickly quieted, either by being ignored (the best approach) or by comment-moderation (a fairly rare, but sometimes needed, form of policing).

Sometimes, they succeed in starting a fight and the community relearns an ancient lesson: "Don't feed the trolls."

We are human, and there will always be name-calling, mean-spirited insults, and deep, deep stupidity. It’s part of who we are. When we come together in communities, though, we tend to temper what is worst in us through all of the ancient mechanisms of community: mutual support and understanding, deference (and challenges) to wisdom, and the power of shame and disapproval. These mechanisms are different, on-line, but they are there.

So, while we should deplore the trolls, we should also avoid getting into needless fights with them. We must expect better of ourselves, and of others, but we lead best by example. Try not to be an asshole.

Our politics just now are very contentious. There will be fights. Let us try to make them about issues of substance. Here’s a rule we might try to agree on: any posting that uses pejorative terms about a political opponent (personally or as a group) should simply be ignored.

Think of all the blogs we would no longer have to read.


Steve Newton said...

Mike, I don't think I mind the anonymity, either. The ability to create alter egos--avatars, if you will--appeals to me as a societal process, although I share your disinclination to do so personally. Sometimes people do need to experiment with new personas, new outlooks, and the acquisition of an internet "handle" is a legitimate way to do that.

On the other hand: for what's its worth I grow excessively tired of the coup-counting name calling that passes for political dialogue around here. Maybe, as someone said, blogging is currently 70% grafitti and only 30% content. If so, that's what has to change. You can have humor, style, and even edginess with content (and some day I'll learn how to do that). But none of that requires the repetitive and unimaginative "fuck you up yours" quality of dialogue that passes for comment on a daily basis.

Too many people seem to have been scared by Norman Mailer as a child.

Mike Mahaffie said...

I think you make a valid point there, Steve. I find myself disinclined to join in some of the political threads lately; I usually avoid bar fights too.

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