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Friday
Nov182011

Anonymity and human nature

On November 4th, David Brooks published a provocative piece in the Times in reaction to the Penn State scandal. He cites research reminding us how frequently people ignore misdeeds they witness and convince themselves that everything is normal, or someone else will take care of it. It gets more interesting at the end when he says, "In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness." People were continually reminded (in church or the equivalent) of their inner demons and encouraged to struggle against them. These days, we assume "inner wonderfulness." We react to atrocity by blaming conditions, institutions, cultures, etc. A different way to put this is that in our secular society instead of trying to suppress atrocity from the pulpit we use the law. His point is really that we all have dark tendencies, but we deny them.

Then yesterday I attended a good-natured set of debates at The Real Deal's annual forum. Lockhart Steele of Curbed and Frederick Peters of Warburg Realty debated the effect of real estate blogs, particularly the harm caused by sometimes nasty, personal comments of anonymous readers. Curbed is a great site that takes a gossipy, sometimes sensationalist, view of the real estate world. As long as there's been a public Internet, people have complained that anonymous comments remove a sense of personal responsibility or decorum that one finds in the physical realm. Yet, as Brooks reminds us, there is an overcorrection: people don't just suppress their bitchy comments, they suppress their possibly beneficial actions as well. 

We all know of the turmoil in Italy these days. I was in Naples last month, and the city is full of political graffiti (it seems not an accident that this word comes from Italian). This was once the primary form of anonymous commentary, the id of the city expressed. Now that has largely moved online and includes far more participants, who would hesitate to deface a public surface. When I launched the second MESH web site in '98, I included a "MESH graffiti" section, where anyone could post anonymously. There was a lot of noise, but I enjoyed the idea of a public wall where anyone coming through could leave a mark. A unedited reading of our visitors. 

Peters won the debate because he was charming and the room was full of real estate guys, but I think you have to concede the point to Steele. I would rather let that material come out and understand it and debate it than suppress it and deny that such impulses exist. The blogosphere and its attendant commentary is certainly no worse than today's news media, which feeds on itself in a constant battle for attention. It is arguable, in fact, that the blogosphere counterbalances the non-anonymous news media.

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