The scourge of anonymity

The newspaper’s gradual shift toward web-based content has some huge implications, the largest of which is that news coverage has become a two-way street.

Instead of reading a news story and then putting the paper down to sip their coffee, people can react immediately by posting comments online in response to the story or to other people’s comments.

Most news websites, including the Journal’s, allow users to comment anonymously. As one of the two people responsible for moderating the Journal’s comment boards, I can say with certainty that this is both a blessing and a curse.

Comment boards have the potential for great discussion. Critically examining a news story, responding to an opinion piece or adding some information to a blog post creates unprecedented access and capacity for interaction.

Unfortunately, this blessing is the exception that proves the rule. Many of these discussions are hijacked by the scourge that is anonymous commentary.

If you really want to lose faith in humanity, read almost any comment thread on the CBC or Globe and Mail website. Instead of crafting a well-written, thoughtful response to an issue, your average anonymous commenter often contributes counterproductive, fallacious and entirely inappropriate thoughts to a discussion.

Letters to the editor, the online comment’s predecessor, took time to write and cost money to mail. People took them seriously.

The Internet changed all that. Comments that tend to drag conversation down to a horrifyingly base level are most often posted anonymously. That isn’t always the case, but it’s a general rule.

The Journal, the campus newspaper at one of the country’s best post-secondary institutions, is no different.

The easy solution to this problem would be to ban anonymous comments, but it’s a tough situation. If you disallow anonymous comments, you’re stifling discussion. But if you allow them, you end up with boneheads spouting off with no idea what they’re talking about.

Allowing anonymous commentary is a fine line between encouraging discussion and encouraging cowardice.

After reading and moderating hundreds upon hundreds of comments this year, I’ve learned to disregard the anonymous ones. If commenters really stood behind their words, they wouldn’t hesitate to use their names.

For some reason, people seem to give anonymous commenters some merit. But I hope that as the public learns to deal with the Internet’s vast information database by filtering out the crap, anonymous commenters will soon be preaching to deaf ears.

There’s an expression that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. That can’t be directly applied to anonymous commenters, but here’s a new version: If you’re not willing to put your name on it, keep it to yourself. You’re wasting everyone’s time.

I’m expecting a few smart-ass anonymous comments on this. If you’re tempted, go ahead. I won’t take you seriously anyway.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.