On Anonymity and Civil Discourse in the Digital Age

The latest issue of  Wired magazine features an article by Evan Ratliff chronicling his efforts to vanish from society and avoid detection for a month while the magazine readers vie for a $5000 prize for locating him.  The story teaches all sorts of useful things like how cell phone batteries are trackable and how Greyhound is a last bastion of transportation that doesn’t require a photo ID.

mark-manginoI read the article with particular interest because of a note my friend Paul Meyer sent me yesterday on this very subject.  Paul’s a diehard Jayhawks fan, and their administration looks ready to step in and fire their football coach, Mark Mangino. Paul didn’t really say where he came down on the issue of the coach’s tenure, but he did point out something disturbing he noticed on a story on ESPN.com.  By the time he quit skimming it yesterday, the comments count had topped 1330, and almost every one of them made some sort of fat joke.  While Coach Mangino is a plus-sized individual who dwarfs even Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis, the fact remains his job is in jeopardy not for his physical appearance but rather his won-loss record.  What no doubt started as a bit of snarky smack talk online quickly devolved into ugly personal attacks that can only be classified as vicious and mean.

In this kind of environment, when anonymity can spur otherwise decent people down to something as ugly as character assassination, how can we maintain any semblance of civility?  How can we expect those with an agenda to follow some sort of higher-minded Marquess of Queensberry rules and avoid the partisan mud-slinging inanity that has so polluted the aisles of Congress?  How can we protect brands from competitors with less ethical standards?

In the end, the answer will probably rely on even more technological advancement as a means to out those who abuse the best aspects of Web 2.0.  Anonymity has a legitimate role online, but so does accountability.  In a Wiki-ed world, let’s hope for a bit more wisdom from crowds.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79