Anyone can post whatever they want, just about, without having to register or log in or in any way identify themselves other than by some nickname or other reference.
As a result, some conclude, people are extra loose with their personal insults, ad hominem attacks and innuendoes about other people's opinions or positions, also frequently anonymous.
Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson, Online Editor Tyler Hanley and others of us baby-sit the comments and simply delete postings in poor taste or which seriously divert from the flowing exchange of ideas.
But those who seem to enjoy zapping others know that their posts can sit on the site uncensored for hours or (rarely) even a day or so before they get caught and deleted. Gaming the system is not rocket science for those inclined more toward insult than civil discourse.
As one long involved in editing letters-to-the-editor for various newspapers, watching for libel, bad taste and personal attacks, I'm not at all convinced that anonymity increases rudeness. It well may, but I yet haven't seen any definitive study that shows that. (I'm bracing for an onslaught of URLs.)
But in my personal experience, having one's name attached to a letter or online communication certainly hasn't deterred some writers from almost gleefully zapping others, above or below the belt, personally or by demographic grouping.
In the online world, I became directly interested in The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, an early bulletin-board system, or BBS) in the very early 1990s, as I was handling media coordination as a volunteer for the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy in early 1991 (when we still had a vestige or two of privacy).
My real first-hand view of rudeness was when I explored "conferences" on The WELL, on just about anything from where to get the best deal on printers to politics and sex.
The rude ones were called "flamers," and their flaming intimidated neophytes such as myself into laying low and "lurking" without posting comments. Their names were attached to the flamings, usually, although pseudonyms could be used. Yet everyone had to be a WELL member, thus traceable if they got really out of hand.
My second close acquaintance with online attack-happy persons was after I became a co-founder in 1993 of the listserv, Palo Alto Community Network, or PA-ComNet, along with former head librarian Mary Jo Levy and about two dozen others. While mostly civil and friendly, there were some who regularly blasted the ideas and motivations and sometimes character of others.
PA-ComNet still exists, but only as an informational shadow of itself, tired out by too many hassles -- names always attached.
Now comes Town Square, admittedly an experiment in taking community dialogue to a deeper level.
Town Square policies encourage use of real names, but those who post with their names are decidedly in the minority.
One reason to allow total anonymity was to encourage open use of the forum by everyone, even those who are shy. Some people have a morbid fear of public speaking, and posting to a forum feels a lot like that.
How many Town Square participants would decline to participate if they had to use their names, or register so we could track them if needed? Would such a requirement effectively disenfranchise those persons from participating in community dialogue and debate?
No one is quite sure how to handle abusive postings, whether from flamers of the old days or the anonymous mud-slingers of today's forums. We delete 'em.
One encouraging sign that I've noticed is that some of the threads or themes on Town Square seem to be increasingly self-policing. One poster named Wolf was chided for too strong an attack: "Come on, Wolf," another anonymous poster wrote, urging him (presumably a him) to get back to the subject.
One attack-dog poster on PA-ComNet was simply shunned, as in an old Puritan village: No one responded to her postings, and soon she drifted away.
Now millions of us worldwide are signing up for the Second Life computer program in which participants can create imaginative "avatar" images of themselves and interact with others in a virtual 3-D world. One wonders if the same personal-insult problems will continue. Of course they will, even unto a virtual punch in the nose, perhaps. (Did that just make the bridge of your nose feel funny?)
I can't figure out why so many people prefer not to use their names, or are afraid to. Isn't freedom of speech in America one of those "use it or lose it" things? Whatever happened to the old schoolyard ditty, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me"? Well, words can hurt, a lot.
I personally like Shrek's philosophy, a great antidote to fearfulness: "I'm the scariest thing in this forest."
In any environment, even an urban forest, I've always felt those who need to attack others in mean, sarcastic or personally demeaning ways are stupid, immature, ninconpoop, bullying jerks who must have had a critical parent or a serious psychological condition that blocked them from being able to join in civil, civilized discourse with human beings. Why be afraid of those idiots?
Geez, that felt good.