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In Defense of Anonymous Cowards 228

Increasingly, on this and other websites, people ask for the banning of Anonymous Cowards and others who flame behind pseuds. This would be a mistake. AC's are a unique sub-species of the Net and the Web, like hackers or cypherpunks. They are part of what makes the Net free, especially in comparison to other media. And they keep information moving, especially from corporations and government agencies, whose employees might not be so free to post messages. AC's the price we pay, the tradeoff. They may mostly be testosterone-crazed adolescent dirtballs, but they're our dirtballs.

In recent weeks, chronicles here of my stumbling (and yes, still ongoing) attempts to grasp the intricacies of Linux have sparked both praise and hostility. As usual, the praise tends to come mostly in e-mail, the hostility in public postings, the most assertive of which have come from anonymous contributors calling me various names, as in "This guy is a moron.." On Slashdot, these posters are given the pseudonym "Anonymous Coward."

First-time visitors and many e-mailers, largely friendly, intelligent and generous people, are appalled by this name-calling - lamenting and even apologizing for the flamers. "We really should stop anonymous posting," wrote Greg. "It's just a vehicle for teenagers to jerk off."

But, singed though I sometimes am, I disagree. Anonymous postings are one of the things that makes the Net and the Web so distinct from TV, magazines and newspapers.

Anonymous flamers, like cypherpunks students of mnemetics or crypto-geeks, are one of the many fascinating sub-species on the Web. People wonder at their almost indefatigable hostility. No other medium permits their equivalent, and a whole language and sensibility has formed around them. There's even a term - "flamebait" the producers and editors of Slashdot use for writings and writers (not just me by any means) likely to draw the small but angry hordes.

Flamers are so familiar to me they're almost comforting. I've written for a number of websites, from Hotwired to Newstolls to The Freedom Forum and Slashdot, and in almost every writing, I've been flamed in public postings, whether I'm writing about the Web, politics, media, geeks, movies, Buffy or OSS.

Anyone willing to venture a strong idea or opinion online should expect to be flamed; he will be. It's as intrinsic to Web writing as a keyboard. I've come to value it, in an odd way; maybe out of self-delusion, I equate flaming with being interesting. Every writer knows, whether or not he admits it, that there's rarely such a thing as bad controversy.

What the marketer of ideas most fears isn't that people will criticize his ideas, but that people won't respond at all. This is especially true online, where it's so easy to measure feedback, in public postings, column hits and e-mail messages. For the writer, a column that sparks 400 posts is a home run; a column that generates 20, even if they're nice ones, is a dud.

I don't write to be agreed with, though praise is always welcome; I write to offer ideas, pass on information and observations, start conversations, challenge thought, and then become the beneficiary of lots of feedback. I rarely assume I'm right. So the flamer is, in a curious way, my best cheerleader, a sign of vitality.

Besides that, anonymous postings do valuable things:

They permit people in corporations, government agencies and other risky environments to post news, messages and opinions we would not otherwise see. Living in the age of the megacorporation - Disney, Microsoft - and the era of impulses like the "Halloween document," that's crucial.

They give shy or phobic lurkers the chance to post messages they might not post under their own names and ID's.

They're a curb on the pomposity, authority and arrogance of people at the top of media chains, from newspaper owners to software companies to columnists. The hallmark of mainstream journalism - on display all year in the Monica Lewinsky trial - is the notion that truth and conventional wisdom is the province of journalism, to be passed down to the ill-informed. Thus journalists have felt free to ignore public opinion all year, since the public has no way to express itself beyond polls and surveys, and since the public is presumed to be too ignorant, greedy and immoral to make rational decisions. Anonymous posters make that kind of top-down manipulation impossible online.

Anonymous posters correct mistakes and challenge opinions. Before the Net, people unhappy with the facts, writing style and opinions expressed in the press had - have - few effective ways to reach opinion-givers and information distributors. That's no longer so. When people like me make mistakes, from factual errors to poor grammar to faulty logic, they are corrected instantly and continuously. The writer is not abused by the process, but improved. He or she can become smarter, better informed.

Even though people often reassure the flamee that the flamers aren't representative, or are simply sensitive about certain subjects, the truth is that flaming is almost never personal. That's what e-mail is for. The open display of hostility is attitudinal, a posture, always having more to do with the fact that's it's public than personal.

That's why I almost never get flamed via e-mail.

And Anonymous Cowards keep sites from getting boring or complacent.

The most difficult issue raised by anonymous posting is the personal abuse by flamers, most of whom are young males acting out one or another form of adolescent hostility. But seen in context, they cause little real harm. Besides, anonymous posting may be a healthy outlet compared to slugging peers or running cars into trees.

Like airport noise or graffiti, they are part of life. People who call other people names anonymously have little real influence. Since they offer no rational criticism, they don't have to be taken seriously and have no influence. The kid who says "You're a jerk, go away" almost can't, by definition be someone who must be listened to. Intelligent and thoughtful criticisms are much more disturbing, because they are harder to ignore or dismiss.

The real damage anonymous posters do is drive away people who have important or interesting things to say but don't want to participate in the digital equivalent of dodgem. Many women, older posters, people with demanding work and newbies in particular are disinterested in or frightened off by tostosterone-charged flamers. This is a real loss, judging from their e-mail, since many intelligent, thoughtful and useful observations are never seen. Some Websites suspend the posting privileges of people who engage in repeated personal attacks, while others provide moderators to steer conversations in more rational, civil directions.

But the understandable impulse to chase these people off ought to be resisted. The right of Anonymous Cowards to sound off under a pseudonym is important, part of the online chemical mix. Their existence, like many things online, represents a tradeoff. They're a symbol of the freedom available online, but increasingly rare off-line. More than the mastery of software, they are a much better test for any writer of whether or not he belongs online. And whether or not he ultimately has anything to say.

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In Defense of Anonymous Cowards

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Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann