Does Anonymity on the Internet Breed Bravery or Cowardice?

06/09/2010 04:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is a given that people often say things on the Internet that they would not say if the speaker were identified. I have to admit right up-front that I have an axe to grind here. I had this dream, maybe it was a fantasy, that I could write a blog which would engender open and polite discussion about subjects in which I had an interest. The Huffington Post encourages bloggers to respond to comments, and I vowed that I would try to respond to everyone, except possibly for one-liners that added little to the conversation. Most of the comments comported with my expectations. If my post was featured, I felt like a third grader getting an "A" on his paper. If the comments agreed with my premise, I felt equally rewarded. If they disagreed, I frequently saw a fallacy in my own position or an equally compelling contrary argument. Exchanges brought enjoyment and enlightenment.

Then there was the dark side. Some, not many, but enough to make the experience less enjoyable, displayed anger and hostility. (And these are ones that made it past the moderators!) Discourse became harangues, and personal attacks too often followed disagreement. Which brought me to wonder whether or not the anonymity which pervades the Internet is a good or bad thing? I have seen insulting comments on other blogs as well, and I am fairly confident that what is being said would never be spoken face to face or with both speakers identified. Comments on something as innocent as a piece of music or musician can bring vicious personal exchanges between the parties. Anonymity allows for brave as well as cowardly statements to be made that might not be made if the true identity of the speaker were disclosed, but such bravery is not often the case.

It is too easy to be mean and sarcastic sitting behind a fictitious name. (I was informed that someone who was berating me was actually using three different names. I initially thought it was a groundswell of condemnation.) The New York Times will not publish a letter to the editor unless the name and address of the writer can be verified. I recognize that no such requirement is possible in this vast Internet world. Fictitious names and identities would be too easy to create.

But the Internet comments seem to be a microcosm of what is occurring in the country. Everything is divided: one is liberal or conservative, pro-life or pro-choice, right or wrong, friend or foe, for or against, a fan of Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow. President Obama was chided for style over substance as a candidate and now is criticized for choosing substance over style in regard to the oil spill. Republicans vote "no" when Democrats vote "yes". There does not seem to be any willingness to listen, understand and accept another viewpoint. Politeness and respect for contrary views, moderation and compromise seem to have vanished from the public square. I expect someone to say if you can't take the heat get out of the blogoshpere. But it isn't the heat that bothers me, it's the fire. Most of us blog for our own pleasure without compensation. The world would survive easily without our literary contributions. But as long as we persist, requesting respect and good manners does not seem too much to ask. My idol (even if it was Orrin Hatch) is the person who said: "Can't we disagree without being disagreeable?"