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Anonymous Online Commenting: A Culture of Cowards

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Nothing lasts forever, the saying goes, unless it's online.

Since hearing the news, I've been rather blue about Christopher Hitchens' esophageal cancer -- in part because he's among the finest intellectuals we've got, and in part because the diagnosis is another thing keeping mortality in the foreground.

To cope, I've been watching copious amounts of Hitchens on YouTube, reading copious amounts of Hitchens online and taking comfort in the fact that ideas outlive us.

At one point I stumbled upon something Hitchens wrote for the London Review of Books back in 1990, where he talked about his feud with a former newspaper baron by the name of Conrad Black -- for whom, incidentally, I've copy-edited a column or two.

What struck me was not what Hitchens had to say about Black, but rather the civility of the comments that followed. All of the commenters were thoughtful and respectful, even when they disagreed -- a departure from the usual run of vitriol that has become the online norm. Furthermore, they all provided full names and locations.

It got me thinking: Anonymous online commenting is creating a culture of cowards. Many of us lead this bizarre double life where we're eager to document ourselves on Facebook, Twitter and blogs -- to share publicly stuff that would make our parents blush -- but then opt to mask our identities when we feel compelled to discuss things of real import.

And it's eroding the quality of public discourse.

It's no secret that Generation Me is a bit self-involved. More than any generation before us, we tend to consider ourselves important, our accomplishments extraordinary and our opinions golden.

But we're a sensitive lot, too. We tend to not like it when our opinions are challenged, because the prospect of being proven wrong is unpalatable when our self-esteem is all wrapped up in being right.

So a lot of us shroud our own identities while we tear down the identities of others.

It would be one thing if anonymity consistently facilitated richer and more diverse discourse. But, as The Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts Jr. said, anonymous message boards on newspapers' websites are overwhelmingly "havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnant of our propriety."

He continued: "For every person who offers some trenchant observation on the point at hand, there are a dozen who are so far off point they couldn't find their way back with a compass and a roadmap. For every person who brings up some telling fact, there are a dozen whose 'facts' are fantasies freshly made up to suit the exigencies of arguments they otherwise cannot win."

Now, some message boards make it work. It's not hard on sites like HuffingtonPost.com and NYTimes.com to find instances where the commentary is as informative and interesting as the story itself. And that's no accident: Aside from the quality of the readership, civility is maintained because comments are vetted prior to publication, commenters are required to register and users have the ability to flag the bad content and award the good.

And even then there's still a lot of trolling afoot.

Sites without such requirements -- where every comment is published unless it's an ad, threat or racial epithet -- are supposed to be wild gardens of democracy. But the weeds choke everything out and something substantive rarely blossoms.

The experiment is over: Too many people don't hold themselves accountable when they know nobody else can.

I'm not the only one who feels this way, either. According to an (albeit unscientific) online reader poll by The Washington Post, 40 percent of respondents think that commenters should be required to identify themselves.

Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington agrees that people often exploit anonymity to say hateful things, but noted that "the Internet is growing up [and] the trend is away from anonymity."

She's right. But most people won't choose to post under their own names unless it's required -- after all, why bother exposing yourself to personal attacks from cowards with keyboards?

So newspapers need to lead the way: they should hold their online content to the same standard of quality as their print editions. Commenters should be forced to attach their names to their opinions.

To be clear: I don't think the Internet should be policed or that your browsing history is anybody's business. And I can think of at least two occasions when anonymity is good: if you live in a country where free speech isn't a right, and if you're trying to diagnose an embarrassing rash.

But if you're worried that a Google search will reveal that you're sort of vile, or that your rants will hurt your job prospects, then keep your opinions to yourself. Most websites dump old comments, anyway.

And don't hide behind the First Amendment, either. Being allowed to say something and being guaranteed a platform to anonymously spew venom are two different things entirely.

This isn't about coddling the egos of opinionated journalists -- least of all mine. In fact, I get a kick out of being called "faggot" by anonymous detractors because, as Hitchens himself said, "I always think it's a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem." Plus, as 50 Cent said, "I need you to hate so I can use you for your energy."

I mean, it's hard to take seriously the petty whines of spineless swamp people who feel compelled to say "edgy" things to compensate for their own dullness, and take refuge in anonymity because, truth be told, they aren't too sure who they are, anyway.

No, what this is about is protecting the everyday people who don't want to be featured in news stories if it means being slandered online; it's about all of the thoughtful people who choose not to participate in the discussion because they don't want to be personally attacked; and it's about a culture where fact plays second fiddle to visceral and a lot of young people don't differentiate between logical refutation and petty name-calling.

A lesson from the life of Christopher Hitchens: From the safety of anonymity, there is nothing impressive about calling Bill Clinton a sociopath, Mother Teresa a fraud, Henry Kissinger a war criminal and God a celestial Kim Jong-Il. Saying the same things under a byline is, as the kids online say, epic.

This generation has Hitchens hubris. What we need is Hitchens honor.