In 2008 a gossip site called JuicyCampus.com became popular among Princeton students. I was serving at Princeton as Associate Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life at the time, and from what I understood, the site was a vehicle for anonymous rumor and gossip on college campuses. The predictable results were damaged reputations and sense of worth of students, and an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust among the university community.
The then-president of the student body, Connor Diemand-Yauman, and Thomas Dunne, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students, developed an inspired response with a campaign called "Own What You Think" aimed at raising the level of interaction and conversation among the university community with t-shirts that read: "anonymity = cowardice."
Five years later, I still love this campaign and the crucial message of 'owning what we think.' The phrase has special resonance now as The Huffington Post is gradually moving away from anonymous comments.
What is really at stake in this move is all of our integrity. When the Internet started it seemed to be a "virtual" alternative universe where we could be, do, and say things we really would never do, be or say in "real life." However, after 20 years we have become more aware of what the Internet really will be and matured in our approach to it.
Earlier this year, then-Pope Benedict said: "The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people." The former pope was recognizing that there is no longer a meaningful distinction between the online and offline world. It follows, therefore, that we must be the same people online as we are offline and own our actions and words in the same way as well.
Which brings us to the comment section of The Huffington Post.
When I first started The Huffington Post's religion section I hoped that it might provide a space for intelligent, informed and respectful conversations between people of different faith traditions, within faith traditions and between those who adhere to no faith tradition and those who do.
We hoped that HuffPost Religion could provide a place where people from around the world could share what is most beautiful and compelling about religious traditions, coupled with opportunities for critique, exploration and new revelations. While good conversations can happen in the comment sections, it is more often ruined by casually offered insults and scattershot invective.
Under the new guidelines people will still be able to post these kinds of comments. However, my hope is, when commenters become full people online and recognize that the other commenters are real people, the tone will change and people will be more compassionate in their approach and clearer in their critique.
The Internet could be the best thing that ever happened to religious expression as it has allowed people to learn from and engage people they might never have met before the World Wide Web. Religion will be positively affected by the Internet to the degree that we own what we think and approach one another via the web with all the same integrity we maintain in our interactions offline.
As of next month, Huffington Post users won't be able to create anonymous accounts to post on the site; going forward, their identities will have to be verified internally. HuffPost recognizes that many people are not in a professional or personal situation where attaching their name to a comment is feasible, and this change will not require users to identify themselves in connection with each comment. Rather, we will ask users to verify their identity when creating an account, which will reduce the number of drive-by or automated trolls. The change will only affect users creating new accounts on HuffPost. Existing accounts will be grandfathered into the new system.
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