"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." That's the caption with a now-classic cartoon by Peter Steiner, published in The New Yorker in July 1993. It pictures a dog sitting in an office chair at a computer, with one paw resting on the keyboard. The dog looks down at another dog seated on the floor and imparts the famous line.
At the time, the public's use of the Internet was in its infancy. Previously, it was used primarily by scientists, computer experts and engineers. Some points of reference: In 1993, America Online (as it was known then) connected "thousands of households" to the Internet. As of March 2011, the number of Internet users worldwide was almost 2.1 billion, as reported at internetworldstats.com.
But Steiner's caption—written nearly 20 years ago—still rings true today. Do we really know who we are talking to? When we claim to know who's on the other end—designated as "friends" or "connections"—we often have never met the person.
Taking Steiner's caption a little further, there are plenty of "dogs" on the Internet: They are the ones posting rude, nasty and inappropriate comments on blogs and comment boards. And we still don't know who they are.
But this is beginning to change.
The Arizona Republic recently announced a new comment policy: In order to comment on The Republic's site, you will need a Facebook account. The Republic is not the first publication to make this change. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, require some sort of registration in order to comment. The Washington Post site even requires your job industry, job title and primary responsibilities. (Editor's note: Anonymous comments are allowed at TucsonWeekly.com, but remarks that violate our Comments Policy are removed. One thing against the rules is name-calling.)
Randy Lovely, senior vice president of news and audience development for The Arizona Republic, explained the reasons behind the policy change. He wrote:
In the early days (just a few years ago) of online commenting, I embraced the Wild West freedom that the tools provided in allowing citizens to speak freely about their ideas. Over time, my sentiments have changed as the tone and civility of the anonymous remarks have soured. ... At first, I defended the range of remarks; then I began to grow concerned about the tenor, and I finally became disgusted. The final straw came for me earlier this year. In the aftermath of the tragic shooting near Tucson, comments such as these were all too pervasive:
WeElectedIdiots2: "I guess a politician with half a brain is better than the rest of the idiots that get elected." AZJavaRooster: "She should be up for Canonization soon! oh, God! she was heard to say, 'Well if I had half a mind ...'"
In some corners, this move may be controversial since some users love the shroud of secrecy. But we hope that the use of Facebook will lead to an immediate increase in civility. ... If you believe strongly enough about something to comment on it, be brave enough to own your comment.
While there are some positive responses to Lovely's post at azcentral.com, many people disagree with it. Some claim it's a form of censorship; others refuse to join Facebook; and a few fear reprisals from "nut jobs" who might track them down if they posted their real name. Other points: Not being anonymous will reduce the number of comments; and anonymity allows for more-honest posts.
In some public circles, it seems "honesty" is synonymous with name-calling. In 2007, Mike Conway, an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University, conducted a study to determine how many times commentator Bill O'Reilly resorted to name-calling during his "Talking Points Memo" segment. Volunteers watched 105 episodes and reported that O'Reilly called someone a name 2,209 times during a total of more than 248 minutes, or nearly nine times per minute.
If this type of discourse is taking place on TV screens, it stands to reason that some of this will spill onto computer screens. Add the opportunity for anonymity, and you have lots of O'Reillys—all unidentifiable—spewing forth rude, crude and insensitive comments.
There's nothing wrong with expressing one's opinion in the face of opposing views. One would hope people could do this politely—but it hasn't always been the case online. Remove the secret identities, and we'll have a lot fewer dogs to contend with.