Avi Rath
Photo: Yisrael Bardugo

The curse of anonymity

Op-ed: Under cover of anonymity, readers create violent, shallow talkback culture

In principle, there is much good in the Internet, which has turned into a huge source of information, capabilities, possibilities, opinions, and whatnot. A modern, Western person largely cannot live without the Internet: Ranging from PhD dissertations to ordering a pizza, NBA scores to the weather in Zimbabwe, one can find anything there.


The Internet also allows one to enter as a passive or active guest, ask questions, respond, and speak out anonymously. This anonymity is a certain blessing – it allows people to raise issues and opinions that they would not do otherwise, had they been required to identify themselves. However, overall I’m afraid that the drawbacks are greater than the benefits.


Personally, I hesitated before joining the ranks of Internet writers. For many years I wrote in the press, where the rules of play were clear – I wrote openly, while fully identifying myself, and the same was true for those who wanted to respond and published articles under their full name. Whether they agreed with me or not, we saw the emergence of a dignified, to-the-point media debate.


They knew who wrote the piece and I knew who the respondents were, and so, we engaged in some tough, incisive debates through mutual respect. However, the Internet changed the rules of the game.


I still identify myself and present my views and beliefs openly and freely in the “town square.” For me, the rules of play have remained the same. However, everything changed on the readers’ side. A whole culture of talkbacks, premised on anonymity, has emerged.


Initially I would read the responses, out of respect, interest, and curiosity coupled with a genuine desire to see different points of view and legitimate comments. However, a short while later I realized that I’m wasting my time.


Try arguing with a nickname

Under cover of anonymity, people allow themselves to resort to violent, crude language, while slamming the writers rather than addressing what they wrote. People out there curse and insult, with some responses showing that talkbackers have not even read the article. They see who wrote it and offer automatic retorts.


Many times after reading talkbacks I would ask myself – would the respondent use the same language and offer the same response had they sat face-to-face with me? Is anonymity a platform for losing any restraint? Are the basic rules of respect, tolerance, and politeness non-existent in a world that provides anonymity?


I write openly and am willing to engage in open and free public debate. On the other end people are hiding and engaging in a talkback battle that is a lost cause for me. Try arguing with a nickname.


To my regret, the result of this dynamics is one of mutual contempt – the writers no longer treat the talkbackers seriously. At first they may recognize some of the nicknames and writing styles, but slowly they stop reading and addressing the comments. On the other hand, the readers understand that the virtual air, which is replete with violent talkbacks, boomerangs – hence, some of them use harsher language to draw attention, or quit altogether.


I increasingly hear people discussing the culture of the Internet and talkbacks and telling each other: “Forget about it, I’ve stopped responding a while ago,” or “come on, only bored and crazy people write talkbacks…” And it’s a pity. A pity that what was supposed to be a dignified, proper platform has turned into an arena for insults and violence. What was supposed to be a respectable town square has turned into a disrespectful booth at the market.


This makes the writers less eager to write, undermines the desire to read the talkbacks, and reduces the trust in the ability to create serious discourse.


Indeed, we do see some serious, proper responses out there and not everyone is the way I described. It’s also true that one shouldn’t generalize. However, overall, the talkback culture sadly doesn’t enable me to seriously address the comments made out there.


One may not agree to anything written by the writer, or alternately, praise him – both responses are legitimate. What is illegitimate in my view is hiding behind the cover of online anonymity and use it to attack, hurt, and create verbal space that is replete with violence, shallowness, and zealousness. In this respect, we are still far off from seeing this virtual town square fulfilling its purpose – serving as a dignified platform that respects a variety of opinions, views, people, and camps. What a pity.



פרסום ראשון: 07.27.10, 12:02
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