But for all the downsides of comments-thread anonymity, there’s a major upside: It shows us the American id in all its snaggletoothed, pustulent glory, with a transparency that didn’t exist before the Internet. And in its rather twisted way, that’s a public service.
…And yet anonymous comments — all of them, even the written equivalent of high-speed drive-by shootings — serve a useful function. They show us what the species is really like: the full spectrum of human behavior, not just the part that we find reassuring and enlightening.
As someone who has been long fascinated by the irrational side of human nature, I agree completely. I don’t waste any time reading comments at YouTube, say, because they make me weep for humanity and contemplate suicide. But I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to let the way you want things to be get in the way of clearly perceiving how they actually are. If the majority of people, even the ones who are computer literate and somewhat technologically savvy, are a mass of hooting, mean-spirited, feces-flinging ignoramuses who need to have their names tattooed on their knuckles to help them remember how to spell them, well then. That’s what we’ve got to work with, that’s where we have to start. Dream of the Enlightenment all you want, but put on your sewer boots and wade into reality.
I’m unabashedly in favor of allowing people their online anonymity, because frankly, leaving aside obvious examples of violent threats and personal stalking, the only thing most anonymous net denizens are guilty of is failing to respect fraudulent authority. From Lee Siegel to CNN anchors, when you hear people whining and complaining about anonymity, it’s a certain sign that their fragile egos, so long sheltered by the polite agreement among other pretentious, ignorant gasbags in the chattering class, have been shattered by being nimbly mocked, pantsed, debunked and outwitted by the stereotypical Guy in His Mom’s Basement Wearing Pajamas.
My favorite example was when Marshall Wittmann, former Christian Coalition hack turned DLC hack turned Joe Lieberman flunky, had his ridiculous “Bull Moose” blog, where he referred to himself in the third person constantly, sort of like The Rock, only not cool, and not funny. Anyway, one day he summed up his center-right political philosophy by saying, “The Bull Moose grazes in the vital center,” no doubt mightily impressed with his own high-mindedness and poetic grace. To which a pseudonymous commenter quickly replied, “Best euphemism for cunnilingus ever!”
To me, that alone suffices as proof for why we need expression on the Internet to remain free and anarchic. One sacred clown like that makes up for a ton of unimaginative trolls.
It’s funny, because in the blogosphere, I was always more irritated by the idiots who couldn’t/wouldn’t stop rising to the bait whenever an obvious troll would show up in the comments. They’re easy enough to ignore if you really want to, but the sad truth is, even mostly intelligent people don’t want to. I stopped reading blogs like Sadly, No! years ago because their comment section turned into a retarded wasteland of trolls, meta-trolls, and imbeciles who couldn’t tell the difference and thus argued with both.
When a person comments anonymously, we’re told, they’re putting a mask on. But the more time I spend online the more I’m convinced that this analogy gets it backward.
The self that we show in anonymous comments, the fantasy self, the self we see in the mirror when we fantasize about being tough and strong and feared, the face we would present to the world if there were no such thing as consequences: That’s the real us.
The civil self is the mask.
I’ll beg to differ here, though. He’s right that the unrestrained, impulsive self is more immediate, more direct, but that doesn’t mean it’s more “real” than our social selves. Things are not their origins. Roots aren’t more “real” than branches and leaves. Humans, being another species of ape, are social animals through and through. We didn’t spring fully formed out of sensory deprivation chambers. There is no such thing as a “pure” human nature independent of the family, the tribe, the clan, the hamlet, the town, the global village. Even Nell had a mother and sister. From the time we’re toddlers, we’re constantly learning to modify our needs and wishes based on the reaction we get from those around us. It’s possible, in our modern age, for an adult to cultivate an isolated, solitary existence, but they don’t totally reinvent their character and historical habits in the process. All their memories, experiences and ingrained habits travel with them, even if they shut themselves off from allowing any new stimulation or information to enter their experience.
Now this was just funny:

Restricting or eliminating anonymity discourages gratuitous jerk behavior, just as the invention of caller ID turned prank phone calls into nostalgic memory.

O RLLY? Online soundboards have brought about a new golden age of prank calling! Besides, you never heard of punching *67 before dialing the number?