Anonymity will live, for now

I woke up on Saturday, just like any other Saturday at my place — a little too early for the alarm to matter, even if I had set one. Grabbed coffee, saw a friend, checked out some sports news.

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Kevin Wilson

What? ESPN.com is still around? You’re kidding. It’s been one month since the death spiral that was going to destroy their relevance as a company.
It was then that the web site made the incredibly stupid, foresight-lacking decision to replace its anonymous comments system and require readers weigh in through Facebook. That started on July 17, and somehow Olympus has not fallen.

Prior to the decision, reading user feedback on ESPN stories was like venturing into a wasteland. Stories involving any All-Star player would reach into the thousands within an hour, but far too many of the comments were people saying racist and sexist things just to set other people off, or people saying the same thing half a dozen times because the first five times they said it got buried under the racist, sexist or just plain vulgar taunts.

If moderators found something offensive and took the time to ban the account, the user would just set up a new account and go right on posting. If the moderator missed one of them, the site clearly wasn’t doing its job.

Now I go on the site, and there are fewer comments. But less is more. There are people basically making quip comments, while others are engaged in healthy debate over sports. There are still the vulgar comments, but now they have to worry about friends and family seeing them be vulgar jerks … or they aren’t taken as seriously because they set up a Facebook account just to make vulgar comments on ESPN.

We’re going to see it more and more, as content providers realize the extra page views from online commenting isn’t worth the hassle of policing everything. Google’s been working on it with YouTube, and Yahoo will work toward it as well. My go-to joke about YouTube comments is, “Those are the most offensive, racist and sexist comments I’ve ever seen since the last time I saw the comments of a YouTube video,” but I suspect that will soon change.

And let’s not pretend that it violates the First Amendment because somebody decides you can’t fill their site with anonymous vulgar comments. Let’s go offline for a second, and imagine I walked into any local restaurant. The server tells me what the lunch special is, and I tell her gay people are an abomination and interracial marriage was leading our country into Hades. How long do you think it would be before I’d be asked to find a new restaurant? My free speech was never violated; government never stopped me from saying anything I wanted, but that protection doesn’t mean a private business owner has to tolerate it on their property.

A month in, and it looks like the reports of ESPN.com’s death are greatly exaggerated.

There will always be some level of anonymity on the Internet, and the best anonymous communities don’t get out of hand because the members feel accountability to each other.

Anonymity will live, but so does the right to protect your property, even if the property only exists online.

Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Clovis Media Inc. He can be contacted at 763-3431, ext. 313, or by email: kwilson@cnjonline.com

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