Monday, August 15, 2011

Link: The Guardian: Internet Anonymity and Trolling

Some ten years ago I was on an unmoderated forum. You can probably guess which one if you've read this blog for a while. I was unusual in that when I participated on the forum I used my real name. One man eventually met me in a class setting and said he'd been wanting to meet me for a while. He said anyone who had the balls to use his real name on a site like the one we both participated in was someone he wanted to meet. I didn't just use my real first name as a sobriquet, I used my real name.

Although I have long since developed the pseudonym Wenatchee The Hatchet this has never really been a truly identify-hiding pseudonym. It gives a person a snowball's chance of figuring out what region of the United States I live in by including the name of a real town in the Northwest (not that I've ever lived there, mind you). Even the alliteration built into the name could lead a widely read reader to suspect I have read more than a few comic books penned by Stan Lee. I have made no effort to conceal a longstanding connection in the last eleven years to Mars Hill. Of course last year I began writing for Mockingbird and decided that my pseudonym, already effectively doing nothing to conceal my identity, could be considered less a pseudonym and more like a brand.

But as I have said before the distinction between anonymous blogging and a public persona is not so big as might first appear. A comedian can appreciate this, as can an actor or a musician. It is easy for someone to remark on the public persona without seeing that this is the persona and not the person. It can be difficult for a person who has cultivated a persona to remember the distinction between persona and person for that matter. Someone might be tempted to shield family or friends from public remarks about the persona thinking they may feel that these remarks are about the person. That's understandable, yet it may also need to be said that when you compose a persona and enter the public sphere you invite comment that will inevitably emerge in the world on-line, which, if it were not really in any way effecting the real world, could not include statements over which lawsuits could be formed.

On the internet there's trolls to be sure but in a sad way there is really no trouble on the internet that we have not, for the most part, brought upon ourselves. The internet has been around for some twenty years and it can still be hard to fully appreciate this. We can imagine we get trouble or emotionally troubled by bloggers or news feeds or crazy people on the internet but we are not merely tempted by things outside, real as those external temptations may be. Those external temptations are given to us in "new" ways by means of the internet but the temptations themselves are ancient. Rumors of wars predated the internet by millenia. Rumors of scandals in church circles predated the church, if you think about it. The temptation to covet someone else's spouse predated the internet. The temptation to lie about someone to bolster your own reputation predates the printing press. Even if you were to hole yourself up and avoid any contact with the internet none of the temptations you think the internet will make worse will be absent.

In a way trolling exists in more than one form. How about forwards from supposedly real people who are often not attributed as sources? You know, the forwards that lambast this or that person and make claims that are not necessarily true but confirm your worst suspicions about so and so? Some of the most persistent and pervasive trolling on the internet comes in the form of spammy chain emails that we forward because we agree with whatever the sentiment is, frequently tagged with something to the effect of "and if you're a real American you'll forward this." I guess I'm not a real American.

I delete just about every forward I receive. Let me tell you, unbidden, why. I wouldn't want someone forwarding stuff of that sort about my family members and since I appreciate that people I disagree with, however strongly, also have family members, I'm not interested in forwarding this paranoid forward about how Obama is a Muslim conqueror or that forward about how Bush 2 was going to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution. It all ends up reading more or less the same way. Trolling happens in your heart long before you hit the reply button. We are all tempted to troll but that doesn't mean we have to give into that temptation. No, really, we are all tempted to troll. The difference between some of us and others of us has nothing to do with the temptation or even the disposition of the heart, the difference is more a matter of the fact that some of us go beyond imagining our witty rejoinders and put-downs to working at making those a reality. But the equally unhappy truth is that the vast majority of us are not so witty or clever or funny or coherent as we tell ourselves we are.

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