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21 April 2016

It’s time to end the curse of the internet: anonymity

Written by: Ben Fenton, Senior Director at Edelman

Corporate Reputation, Media

An interesting piece by Walter Isaacson, the former editor of Time and CEO of CNN, mentioned among a lot of sage thoughts on how to fix the broken business models of journalism, the following idea:

“Internet anonymity is one of many reasons that civility has been drained from our public dialogue.”

I couldn’t agree more.

You only needed to read The Guardian’s analysis of its own trollbase to realise how even a supposed liberal publisher is actually a garden for vicious bigotry and the trading of unfunny putdowns.

In fact, when you think about it, why do we allow people to insult us online that we would never allow them to do in physical proximity? More to the point, why do we permit abuse from cowards who wouldn’t dare to repeat obscenities, insults and foolish bile if we knew who they were?

But then anyone who dabbles in social media, or in some cases exists vicariously in it, is choosing an environment they know can be toxic and inhumane. About that, I mostly worry that building up an immunity to derision and hatred is not an ordinary way for people to react and it is unlikely to have positive long-term effects on their personalities or the way they conduct themselves in what for want of a better phrase I will call the real world.

But that isn’t true for publishers. They can pick and choose who uses the platform of their expensive, professionally produced websites to disseminate views. Even the most upstanding organisations occasionally permit, by accident or omission, anonymous commenters to cast aspersions on other strangers or to transmit foul worldviews in a way they would certainly not do if their names were broadcast along with their invective.

I cannot see why they do it. To imagine that “community-building” by allowing people to say anything they feel like is somehow commercially valuable is as wrong-headed as the delusion (which most publishers are slowly coming to recognise) that the value of mass (but fleeting) audiences is greater than that of smaller (but more intrigued) audiences.

Advertisers, who keep non-paywalled news websites (barely) above water, are beginning to abandon clickbait-supported sites in search of sites that command greater “dwell-time”. In the same way, the audience that is actually commercially valuable – that is to say, not the angry, the mad, the adolescent, the depraved and deprived – is abandoning any idea of joining a community of commenters, or even reading comments, where inanity and obscenity and vituperation rule.

I am certain that the first major publisher to refuse to publish anonymous comments – that is to say only to publish comments where the commenter has provided a proof of identity such as a debit card, from which a nominal sum is deducted and then refunded – will enjoy enormous advantages.

There will be a first-move advantage – people will write about you and comment on you on social media and elsewhere on the net.

There will be a loyalty advantage – people will read the comments because first, there will be far fewer of them (who bothers to start reading a section that says “Comments (352): …”?). And they will enjoy being somewhere that, if they get into a verbal fight, their adversary is not hiding and is accountable.

There will be a commercial advantage. Apart from being a superior commercial product, those who are on those pages will be known to be committed to it, and also to want to be part of that particular community – why else would they submit payment card details – and would be known to be solvent, old enough to spend their own money and most likely given to making sane buying choices. Advertisers like normal people.

So why wait? Why not be the first? End anonymity, build a pleasant culture around the comment section. It’s the first step to ending the anonymity that is quickly weakening the bonds not only of public dialogue, but also undermining our sense of how much we are valued by our fellow human beings, and how much we can trust them to behave themselves.

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