Jaron Lanier, a kind of web reverse-guru, perhaps the Anti-Shirky, talks to Smithsonian magazine about what he sees as the existential threat of Internet anonymity.
“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”
“Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat.
“I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam….Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”
[ . . . ]
We read of online bullying leading to teen suicides in the United States and, in China, there are reports of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs forming…digital Maoism.
He gives me one detail about what happened to his father’s family in Russia. “One of [my father’s] aunts was unable to speak because she had survived the pogrom by remaining absolutely mute while her sister was killed by sword in front of her [while she hid] under a bed. She was never able to speak again.”
It’s a haunting image of speechlessness. A pogrom is carried out by a “crowd,” the true horrific embodiment of the purported “wisdom of the crowd.” You could say it made Lanier even more determined not to remain mute. To speak out against the digital barbarism he regrets he helped create.
I think Lanier is maybe a bit too in love with his own novelty, the web pioneer who now hates the web, and takes some of this to an unnecessary extreme, but I take his point. If there's anything about the web, and blogs particularly, that I find loathsome, it's comment sections and bulletin board sites that traffic in anonymous anger and hate-spewing. Frankly, I was a little afraid to come to Freethought Blogs because I know how tumultuous a lot of the commentaries can get (so far, most of you have been lovely).
I'd never be one to say that folks should not be allowed to be anonymous online. Far from it. But I do think there's a lot of merit in the individual sites and blogs deciding that for their own plot of Internet real estate, folks have to go by their real names in order to play. That probably doesn't work for, say, YouTube, but for a given publication or service, I can definitely see why that would be preferable — a declaration that at such-and-such a site, you stand by your words with your real identity. And if you don't want to play by that rule, you can simply not participate in that site, or respond on your own blog or platform outside of that site, as anonymously as you want.
That doesn't solve what Lanier fears, of course, but at this point, what could?