Anonymity and the net: it’s what you say that counts
Online discussions are immeasurably enriched by anonymity.
There is no doubt that the capacity to have people from the broader community contribute to discussions of a contentious nature, without fear of reprisal, has energised the political landscape and has, perhaps, even furthered our democracy.
Recall the adage, ‘it takes all sorts to make a world’.
The only problem is some of these sorts become deeply offended and incensed at the smallest provocation.
They are of the type that could resort to physical action to attack those who espouse views counter to their own.
Just look at the recent pelting of Godwin Grech’s house with eggs, or the death threat to the Victorian MP Lisa Neville over a proposal to add fluoride to Geelong drinking water.
Some may argue that if you are prepared to say something online then you should also be prepared to give your address and real name.
However what starts online doesn’t necessarily stay online and the risk of reprisal is too great.
This is why anonymity is crucial to the survival of the online community. Without anonymity, the forum would suffer.
On the other hand, a few abuse this anonymity and act as “trolls”; using insulting, vulgar language and espousing wild and contradictory positions simply to gain attention and create a fuss.
However, for the most part just as it is in the “real” world, trolls are only trolls if you let them be.
I don’t see a problem with the occasional smattering of foul language or insulting comment; as long as it is in moderation. But what is moderation?
As the word suggests, whatever it is it could be determined by a ‘moderator’; a person who is employed to monitor the forum for offending posts and remove or edit them.
Since it is impossible to codify the subtle rules against which a comment should be judged, this solution can lead to blanket censorship and an abuse of power by the moderator.
If the moderator should not have the power to remove a comment, then who should?
Having the entire forum community judge whether a comment is appropriate or not seems like a workable solution; YouTube currently utilises such a system with a fair degree of success.
However, this system only works when there is an even distribution of views within the forum; a minority view could be easily censored by the majority.
So in terms of keeping the forum clean and free from trolling comments, it appears as though the best solution is that moderators and the forum community work in tandem.
On the other hand, the perceived level of anonymity can also drastically change the way a forum operates.
If posters are required to register, for example by providing a real name, email, or physical address, then the perceived anonymity decreases. It is then less likely that people will troll.
However, whilst this policy may be marginally effective in reducing trolling, it comes at the cost of a reduced number of forum participants. This is most likely a reasonable trade-off.
Whilst it has been established that anonymity is crucial to a healthy forum, the correct balance between level of anonymity, forum functionality, and number of forum participants must be determined on an economic basis by the forum operators if it is to survive and play an ongoing role in the democratic process.
The relevant question is this: how can forum operators keep a forum healthy whilst maintaining site traffic? I suggest that pre-posting registration and a forum which is moderated by both the community and dedicated moderators is the most prudent answer to this question.
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