Lost in cyberspace

Anonymity and cold keystrokes can lead to a loss of humanity online

Across the country, websites – particularly news sites – have struggled with “anonymous comment” posters. How do you balance a robust debate with the need to be civil?


“My partners and I are all for online civility,” one website purveyor wrote to the New York Times, “but we are not willing to sacrifice a robust public forum to achieve it.”

That seems to be the prevailing notion, and that’s a good thing. When done with care, anonymous comments can breathe life into the republic by giving voice to those who might otherwise remain silent for fear of retribution or rebuke. In other countries, anonymity can be the difference between life and death, liberty or captivity.

Of course, when people take advantage of their invisibility to issue ad hominem attacks on others, it can make cyberspace as cold and uninhabitable as outer space.

But where does it say that “anonymous” has to be the opposite of “civil”?

If you were well-bred – taught manners by the adults in your life – then why shouldn’t those manners be extended to strangers in all sorts of circumstances, including on the Internet?

One supposes it’s easier to be kind to strangers on the street, simply because you are reminded by their appearance that they are, indeed, human. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact when all that passes between us is keystrokes and clicks.

We were reminded of that recently, when The Chronicle’s Editorial Department invited several of our regular anonymous commenters to the newspaper to meet us and participate in a short project we had in mind.

We may yet do it, but were prevented initially due to the fact that each of our commenters had to cancel due to health concerns in their families. We assured them that our thoughts and prayers were with them, and wished them well.

But we came away with a few residual thoughts.

First, it was a joy to correspond with some of our most devoted readers over what amounted to a social invitation, rather than the news of the day.

Second, we’ve long felt that our regular “letters to the editor” writers were like extended family, but it’s true, too, of our regular visitors online.

And, again, it was a nice reminder that we’re all much more than our Internet nicknames and our differing opinions on the state of the world. Regardless of what our readers think of the events of the day, or what our commenters post about us, we value them as fellow travelers and human beings.

If we all remembered that, we’d be a lot more civil to each other. Moreover, when someone isn’t so polite to us, we can always decide how to respond – and responding with patience and understanding, while not always easy, is never a mistake.

All of us who trade opinions on a daily basis feel very passionate about them. But we always need to remember there’s a human being on the other end.



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