My grandmother was nothing if not old-fashioned. Beyond her fondness for mothballs and ankle-length skirts, she maintained an endless archive of aphorisms from some pre-feminist, atemporal past—the stuff of Aesop and Grimm. These, she liked to extract at choice moments, most of which involved catching me in the midst of some transgression—mounting the refrigerator for forbidden Halloween candies, or combing my mother’s drawers for clip-on earrings. There was no misbehavior that could not be moralized with a three-letter, neatly alliterated phrase (“Mind your manners!”) and capped with some pithy comment on being a “lady,” or my inadequacy therein.
Manners, politeness, chivalry, “ladylikeness”: these, curmudgeons bemoan, are lost arts—ones that fell out of vogue around the same time that adolescents’ pants fell below their knees. Sarah Palin coins the term “mama grizzly”; Miley Cyrus pole dances; “Jersey Shore” gets renewed for a third season: Cultural apocalypse (else, implosion) is imminent—or so the conservative narrative goes. Most of us, myself included, greet these comments with more groan than nod: We, and our parents before us, have heard the prophesy before. Exposed bellybuttons and uncouth behavior fail to shock—and why should they? When we don’t like it, we just change the channel.
Applied to the internet, however, this lament assumes a decided valence. The internet has revolutionized modern life: Work, leisure, media, information, and even knowledge itself now bear scant resemblance to their pre-90’s form. Less noted, though no less important, is that the internet—alongside snail mail and printed books—has also revolutionized rudeness. With the World Wide Web, the number of ways that we can be petty, demeaning, and downright offensive to others—oftentimes, to people that we don’t even know—has multiplied million-fold. If my grandmother could work a computer, she would be scandalized.
Silence, at least according to ’60s pop-rock, can be golden. The internet—or, more aptly, a certain subculture of internet users—begs to differ. “Troll” is the tech vernacular for someone who virtually antagonizes others—generally in the form of comment feeds and messaging boards. Some of these “pranks” are innocuous and amusing. Others are emphatically not so. In 2006, Seattle-based programmer Jason Fortuny posted a fake ad on Craiglist as a woman seeking a “str8 brutal dom muscular male.” He proceeded to publish the names, pictures, and contact information of the hapless respondees on his blog. Two people lost their jobs; one lost his girlfriend. In the wake of the Megan Meier MySpace suicide, Fortuny created a fake blog—this time, posing as Lori Drew, Meier’s online tormentor—where he penned hateful words about the recently deceased and her family. Its title: Megan Had It Coming.
Dubbed by The New York Times as “the closest thing this movement of anonymous provocateurs has to a spokesman,” Fortuny proves both an extreme example and an exception: In most cases, there is no face to match the affronts. Back in the day, you had to deliver your insults in person or, barring that, write a letter to the editor, complete with a verifiable name and address. Even if printed anonymously, identities were vetted by the publisher, who assumed responsibility, legal et al, for the printed words. In the world of internet trolls, however, anonymity is king: It guarantees the ability to say almost anything sans consequence. The amorphous state of internet defamation law—much looser than its print counterpart—exacerbates the problem.
Fortuny and company, of course, are a selective lot: Not all those who weigh-in are of the “if you don’t have something nice to say, say it anyways—and loudly” persuasion. Online commenting, on the whole, is a positive force: One that enables audience engagement and fosters journalistic integrity. Yet, what absolute anonymity contributes to this scheme remains less certain. Barring some cogent reason—a fear of persecution (personal, political or otherwise) or extreme emotional sensitivity to the topic at hand—if you can’t stand behind your written words, why write them at all?
News sites, which initially embraced the digital free-for-all in hopes of boosting page hits, are now rethinking the merits of unfettered anonymity. The New York Times requires aspiring pundits to register before opining; a staffer, in turn, reviews each comment, vetoing those that indulge in bigotry and ad hominem attacks. The Wall Street Journal displays the full name of the commenter (ascertained through an online registration process) before each quip. While many digital news outlets have neither the money nor the manpower for such meticulous undertakings, almost all, including The Crimson, allow “flagging.” In this mode, readers police the conversation themselves, marking retorts in particularly poor taste for editor attention. The latter, however, fails to prevent baseless—even cruel—attacks from going live in the first place.
Like it or not, the internet has transformed us all into online selves. Facebook and Twitter enable us to perform our identities as much as express them, while Google searches are now standard procedure for employers and would-be love-interests. As our emotional and existential stakes in the web have risen, so too have the damages that digital malevolence can wreak. Anonymity may facilitate gratuitous hostility, but it does not—and cannot—justify it.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.