A colleague over at Democracy in America (DiA), The Economist's blog about American politics, has written a very interesting post on the nature of online commenters. While the formality of composing a letter to the editor continues to generate considered and often polite prose by even the most aggrieved readers, the immediacy and anonymity of online commenting seems to encourage a tendency to insult and attack. "Faceless communication leads to disinhibition, whether it's online, in a car or on the phone with a customer-service representative... Psychologists even have a name for the online phenomenon: 'online disinhibition effect'."
Publishers keen on a solution to nasty commenters will follow what happens at the Buffalo News. The paper has just proposed requiring readers to supply accurate identification if they want to weigh in, which is promising. (As one of the 65 commenters on the DiA post wrote, "I used to think anonymity was a good thing... However, over time my view has changed to the opposite. For every unique voice, there are thousands of mindless, thuggish screams.")
The editor of DiA worries that forcing readers to identify themselves would scare away those with unconventional political opinions, such as "a Mexican immigrant living in Arizona, or a gun lover living in Berkeley". Readers wary of publicising their views to employers, colleagues and neighbours would then be wise to muffle them. DiA enjoys a healthy amount of considerate commenting from anonymous readers, so some concern is warranted.
Though I've often been appalled by the hasty and venomous ways people tend to air their views online, it does seem as though spaces with a regular roster of commenters (not More Intelligent Life, alas) feature a fair amount of self-policing. And there is value in discovering what people wish to say when they no longer feel the need to be polite. (Hence the harrowing concept of "truth serum", which often creeps its way into otherwise uninspired stories.) Though online dialogues may be a bit more raw than a real-time discussion, with far more people yelling and far fewer listening or reading, there is something useful about a place where people can air their deeply-held, half-baked ideas. If letters to the editor involve engaging your superego to compose a structured and formal argument, then online comments are a way to sometimes unveil your id. Though there is darkness in learning of everyone's base feelings on a subject, it is certainly instructive.
Picture credit: "I'm Writing You a Letter" by Timothy Karpinski; Halogen Gallery (via Flickr)