Keeping civility in online commenting

Of all the facets and features of the online world, anonymity figures large.

Of all the facets and features of the online world, anonymity figures large.

You can drift from website to website, just one of billions of nameless, faceless users.

You can be a watcher, a voyeur, a pupil, a player. And in countless chat rooms and forums and comment sites, you can also be a participant – offering opinions and criticisms, rants and raves, all under the cloak of anonymity.

It’s the latter that is the focus here.

The development of the faceless online persona has been a fascinating, if not somewhat disturbing, journey.

As someone who has worked in the print media for more than three decades, I have been a front-row spectator to public discourse — as an editor, a commentator, a mediator and a target.

Traditionally, voices have been heard through stories and letters to the editor, in both cases from identified sources. The debate was thus limited to those who had the conviction to stand behind their words, in name and sometimes in image.

For most, it tempered the tone of their engagement. Speak offensively and one could face the consequences — in person and in public.

Anonymous online commenting turned that principle on its ear.

On the positive side, the opportunity to offer opinion or criticism on a topic has added voices to the conversation. More people are inclined to shoot from the lip if the return fire isn’t face to face.

It can also be said that discussion on social issues became broader and deeper, as taboo or sensitive topics could be safely examined from behind an opaque barrier.

But anonymous commenting also brought a downside.

It became apparent that sniping from the shadows loosened the bonds of civility — for some, to a disturbing degree. They expanded the right of freedom of speech to mean the right to say whatever they please, wherever they wish.

Anonymous online commenting (and email) often contains a measure of venom rarely found in letters from identified writers and even more rarely in person-to-person discourse.

It also seems negatives attract negatives, so that some commenting sites become dominated by a like-minded few who remain in the dark.

For those reasons, Black Press newspapers are changing from anonymous commenting to posting via Facebook. The News makes the change on Dec. 1.

It’s not perfect, nor infallible. Fake accounts can be created — and Facebook will be ferreting those out, dealing with them as they’re discovered.

This isn’t an us-versus-them game, although there will be some who consider it as such.

Hopefully, by putting names and faces on the commenters, the conversation remains active and interesting – and civil. And those who don’t appreciate that kind of environment don’t have to stay in it.

There is opposition, of course. Many people do not have a Facebook account nor do they wish to establish one. While that choice will prevent them commenting with us, they are still welcome to send a letter to the editor, which will be considered for print and online.

There are also those who are convinced this move is a media conspiracy to censor comments, particularly if they deal with politics or ethnic issues.

It’s not. Your views are welcome, whatever the topic, with the following caveat: There is a code of etiquette.

No debate is enhanced by name-

calling and derogatory allegations. Derision and disrespect, regardless of whom or what it is aimed at, is a crude way of communicating. It’s not acceptable in person or online.

I know we can all do better – and I’ll sign my name to that comment and all those above: Andrew Holota, Editor, The Abbotsford News