Huffington Post decided to bring more civility to online discourse by preventing anonymous posting. By doing so, they wade into quite the controversy, as seen in the comments following the article. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But they, like other sites, felt a need to do something about the rampant rudeness and hostility in the comments. The evidence is overwhelming: anonymity fosters abusive and rude behavior. Just look at the comments section on some sites. (Youtube is a good place to start, an observation made recently by Macklemore) The internet provides an un-chaperoned space for every adolescent impulse we’ve ever repressed. The comments rapidly devolve into nastiness and name-calling. Actually, it’s not a devolution, not conflict gone awry. The comments sections have become are playgrounds for “trolls,” people who deliberately seek to provoke, inflame, and go off-topic to entrap people, create emotional responses, and simply disrupt the discussion.

HuffPo’s decision is not without controversy. There is a reason for communicating anonymously. Anonymity allows a person to express his or her views freely, without the fear of repercussions. It allows for the expression of controversial perspectives and unpopular positions, needed in a country or society where such views are prohibited. And it allows for an individual with no money potentially to reach a large audience and make a real impact. I absolutely do think there is a place for anonymity on the web.

Nonetheless I find myself agreeing with HuffPo’s policy. Here’s why – for the time being – I agree with this policy. (I say “for the time being” because human behavior on the internet is still pretty much in an early phase and as both technology and people evolve so therefore will my thinking on the topic.) First of all, it’s not because I think discourse has to be civil. I am all for debate, disagreement and even conflict. Discourse doesn’t have to be civil because where there is conflict, there is also hurt. And discourse doesn’t have to be civil when there is oppression and abuse. When people are hurt or oppressed they should not be held to standards of rational behavior. The emotionality underlying a conflict is part of the conflict, not an obstacle to its resolution.

But here’s the thing. In my work facilitating conflicts within groups and public forums, even when the conflicts involved historical trauma, abuse, and war, participants were more civil to each other and productive than they are on the internet. It sounds hard to believe, but it’s true. I’ve seen people yell in anger, shout, even make threats, but also hold themselves back, de-escalate, and respond to facilitation.

Which leads me to conclude that what’s happening in many if not most unmoderated comments spaces is not discussion, nor is it debate. These spaces are not being used to air controversial viewpoints or important differences that need to be heard. They’re entertainment, used for baiting, bullying and inflaming for fun. I’ve studied the interactions on many different sites, and notice that what differentiates conflict from mere trolling is that the response to any meaningful attempt to respectfully engage the person is met with more escalating rudeness or simply ignored. Trolls are looking for a reaction, not a relationship.

It’s not the nature of the conflict that predicts the quality of the interaction; nor is it the people participating. It comes down to two variables: anonymity and proximity. Social psychologists have written about the dangers of anonymity long before there was an internet. Research on crowd behavior shows that that people are less likely to stick to social norms when under the cover of anonymity. In a study of suicide “baiting,” social psychologist Leon Mann investigated 21 cases of public suicide where someone threatened to jump off of a building, bridge or tower. Mann found people were more likely to encourage the person to jump, when a) the crowd was larger, b) they were under the cover of nighttime, and c) when there was more physical distance between the person and the crowd.

This explains why people behave better in my facilitated groups than on the internet: in my groups people are face-to-face. Introduce proximity and anonymity and a natural self-inhibiting function kicks in. This inherent social constraint is crucial to survival. We cannot risk face-to-face hostility for fear of injury or even death. This is the mechanism of social taboo: the pressure of exposure, the fear of exile, the presence of responders and witness. People cannot afford to be a pariah. We 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 moderate ourselves, even if it means hiding our true feelings. I love how Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the Huffington Post, illustrates this point with a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird :

Atticus Finch, the lawyer for Tom Robinson, the black man accused of murder, is waiting outside the jailhouse when four cars pull up with an angry mob of white men in them. Unbeknownst to Finch, his two children Scout and Jem had followed him to the courthouse and are nearby watching. As the men start walking towards the steps of the courthouse, Finch tries to block them. “You know what we want,” one man says. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.”  In the midst of the tense stand-off, Scout and Jem come forward and stand between their father and the mob.

Scout scans the crowd for a familiar face and finds one in Walter Cunningham. She offers a friendly greeting but is met with silence. She persists:

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” 

“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”

Mr. Cunningham stays silent. There follows an uncomfortable interval, with the entire assembly standing quiet and stock-still. Finally, Mr. Cunningham breaks the silence.

“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said. 

Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”

And thus exposed, the mob dispersed.

Discourse can be reinserted into the internet, the way Scout inserted civility into that explosive mob. There are ways it’s being done in some Internet communities, things like upvoting, flagging comments, highlighting best comments (by editors), publishing conduct guidelines, and other positive uses of peer pressure such as Slashdot’s ‘karma number,’ where a posting score next to the person’s username represents how the community think views the value of their posts.

However it’s done, whatever the method, inserting some semblance of identity into forums increases the necessary human constraints that allow for interesting, robust, even conflictual debate. Identity generates relationship and thus some form of accountability. Without at least a tiny bit of that, we are the mob. There are times and places for anonymity, even for mobs, when the cause is right. But as a default setting on our social spaces, it’s just not social enough.