Randy Cohen, the New York Times’ ethicist, recently opined on the court ruling that ordered Google to release the name of the anonymous blogger whose site Skanks in NYC was devoted to slandering a fashion model:

Has anonymous posting, though generally protected by law, become so toxic that it should be discouraged?

This issue has gotten my attention as I’m preparing a workshop on Bullying in the Public Sphere. I often find myself drawn to read comments on news sites, drawn no doubt by the same impulse that makes me crane my neck as I drive by an accident. Unmoderated comment sections provide an un-chaperoned space for every adolescent impulse we’ve ever repressed. The comments rapidly devolve into nasty, name-calling, deliberately inflammatory and hateful. It’s this impulse (what possible evolutionary purpose might it serve?) that the mainstream media depend on for their fortunes, and is no doubt why there continues to be unmoderated comments sections after every article.

My job as a facilitator often involves working with groups in conflict, on occasion severe, intractable conflict. And here’s the thing. Even in those volatile settings, when people are face-to-face, they rarely use the same venomous and slanderous name-calling that we see on the internet. There is anger, even threats of violence, but not the same toxic inflammatory slander we see daily on the internet. Anonymity, distance, and the immediacy of response time appear to be an ideal mix of ingredients for the toxic behavior and bullying rampant on unmoderated internet forums.

Social psychologists long before the internet have known about the dangers of anonymity. Research on crowd behavior shows that if people reduce the sense of their own identity they are less likely to stick to social norms. In studying crowd behavior social psychologists at the University of Melbourne found that people were more likely to bait a person standing on a ledge to jump if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor and if it was dark.

These two overlapping factors –  being known and being in proximity of someone – impose a self-correcting mechanism or restraint that results in (mostly) civil behavior. What some cultures call face, or being regarded positively, is not just niceties, but a necessary social constraint, even crucial to survival. We cannot risk face to face hostility for fear of injury or even death. People depend on neighbors for food, help, and support. We do favors for each other as a safeguard for the future, in case a return favor is ever needed. We need our neighbors to shop at our store, look out for our children, jump start the car if needed. We cannot afford to become pariahs. We have to moderate ourselves, even if it means hiding our true feelings. The social pressures of face-to-face interaction and identity hold us accountable because the repercussions of violating social norms are considerable. It’s an extreme cost-benefit analysis. The Northwest Native American saying, “the best place to store your surplus food is in your neighbor’s belly” captures this social interdependency well.

Society has depended forever on this self-policing tendency, whether in the forms of taboos, politeness and manners, norms or laws. The less we self-regulate, the more we create the need for others to do so in the form of police, laws, and a legal system. But a completely moderated or policed internet is not ideal, and probably not possible. Moderating can and should happen by reinserting some of the normal social controls back into forums, controls in the form of identity and its resultant positive peer pressure. In human communication terms, this means reinserting a feedback loop into the mix, creating a conversation not just scribbling swear words on the wall.

It’s interesting that the study of feedback in machine and human systems, cybernetics, has the same Greek root kyber, as the word govern. Kyber, or helmsman, is the one who steered the ship. In fact, in machines the governor is the device that regulates things, like temperature, speed, pressure, water flow, etc. It takes a reading, and feeds back the information to the system, and corrects or adjusts to relate to and adjust to what’s happening.

Governing or moderating the public sphere should rely on feedback, not policing. Reinserting identity and dialogue into forums creates a self-correcting feedback loop with others. A feedback loop means that there is an active responder and witness who reacts, relates, and in so doing, creates a form of accountability and consequence. Bullying behavior relies on an absence of reaction and consequences. Without reactions that indicate that the sender’s signal has been received it keeps sending and sending, escalating into a runaway positive feedback system.

I saw a great example of this recently. I follow Bikeportland, a news and advocacy blog on cycling in Portland, Oregon. There was a recent post about a cyclist intentionally hit by a car. The managing editor of the site posted in the comments after the article:

Just a preliminary reminder, folks, to keep your commentary as level headed as possible here. Let’s not go the way of the mainstream news sites with vengeful raving and speculation.

This comment provoked response. Some appreciated the reminder and the presence of a moderating comment; others questioned whether or not it was possible. But it gave rise to a meta-dialogue about comments, self restraint and civil dialogue. While some might argue it was off topic, it provided a great example of a feedback loop and positive peer pressure. A very robust and interesting dialogue ensued. The comments page became a conversation, people speaking to each other, questioning each others’ meanings, intent, positions. Differences of opinions were aired, all respectfully, and all without name-calling or nasty comments. People used each other’s names, and responded personally to each other. The tone of civility was refreshing. There is sufficient social restraint in interaction to create a healthier public sphere. We just need to reinsert people back into the equation.

Unfortunately, this human is out of the equation temporarily. I’m offline from today until September 20th, and won’t be able to moderate comments until then. I’m on Cycle Oregon. You can follow the ride here.