After being a columnist for almost two semesters, I have become accustomed to the spate of encouragements and attacks that appear every other week in the comments section at the bottom of the online version of my column. I take heart in kind words, wince at criticisms, and appreciate constructive suggestions, but whether comments are positive or negative, I think the current system of anonymous online commenting needs to be reformed.
Of course, my work is certainly not above criticism, and one of the benefits of online commenting is that it gives people the chance to expose the holes in my argument or misdeeds in spelling and word choice. But too often, it seems, Columbians hide behind pseudonyms, from “dudde” to “Arafat,” using their anonymity to make comments that are neither well thought-out nor constructive. Most unproductive of all are the ad hominem attacks on student journalists, like those that were made at the bottom of James Dawson’s very reasonable Spectrum piece on Columbia UNIs : that it was “the dumbest opinion piece,” and to “get this jokester off.” The individuals who post these comments wouldn’t address a writer this way in a face-to-face conversation, and certainly would never submit a letter to the editor for publication bearing their names.
A student journalist, on the other hand, does not write anonymously, and for that reason alone, holds himself to a higher standard, knowing that the quality of the work reflects on the author. When he puts his name on his work, he accepts that he can be held accountable for its content—not just now, but always. Such is the effect of the Internet.
I understand that online commenting has advantages. It allows for a wider variety of voices to be heard, not just those of people who work for a media outlet. On the other hand, the way comments are presented can make it difficult to distinguish good from bad ideas, especially when they appear side by side, as equals, on the same page. I think it’s possible to provide a forum for discussion, however, that does not hand out credibility too cheaply.
In our working memory of print journalism, there has always been an opportunity for readers to comment publicly on the articles published: letters to the editor. These are selected because they raise good points, are well constructed, or come from credible sources. The idea is that an insurance executive or medical professional is most qualified to comment on the health care debate, for instance.
But what qualifies “Asdf” to comment at the bottom of my column, “Oh, put a sock in it. Jesus Christ. What is with you Jews?” Does Asdf hold a degree in comparative religion? Or is Asdf an expert on socks?
Many undergraduate newspapers use an online format that allows people to comment anonymously. Consider, for example, the recent controversy at Yale. After a group of frat brothers chanted misogynist words outside the Yale Women’s Center, a Yale Daily News editorial criticized the center for its “histrionic“ reaction. In response to the editorial, Yale Daily News columnist River Clegg presented a satirical perspective on the incident. I was disappointed that the comments, all anonymous or hidden by pseudonyms, addressed Clegg directly—in a rude, dismissive tone—rather than the points that the column raised. Clegg was called “oblivious” and told to “get a clue.” These sorts of comments raise the question of oversight. How bad does a comment need to be to merit deletion? Do student-run papers like the YDN have the resources to police all comments online?
The reason to have online comments in the first place is to open up a discussion, and attacks are not meaningful contributions. I think a workable solution would be to make it impossible to comment online without disclosing a full name along with the comment, and, in the college setting, a university ID code. Students at other universities should have to include an official email address associated with their names, and people outside the academic community would be free, as always, to submit letters to the editor. Quality will improve once people are held accountable for what they write, the same way journalists are, in the indelible record that is the Internet.
In a world of online usernames, privacy settings, and identity theft, it is easy to forget the benefits of attribution, but there is no good reason why comments on journalism websites should continue to be anonymous.
Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English. The Far Side of the Familiar runs alternate Wednesdays.