Editor’s Note: This blog is a response to a blog posting on the JewishPress.com by Harry Maryles (Emes Ve-Emunah) who argued that anonymity on the internet leads to nastiness and singled out “DovBear” an anonymous blogger who comments on Maryles’s blogs.
Harry Maryles says he disagrees with my posts over the last few days, in which I argue in favor of as much online anonymity as possible. In what follows I explain why he is wrong:
Note: I don’t mean any disrespect in referring to Harry Maryles by his first name. We’ve known each other for a very long time, and I consider him a colleague who often takes the same side as I do on important issues. Also, I am not a very formal guy. Don’t make a big deal out of it. The words in bold belong to Harry and are followed by my response.
“Dovbear – who himself chooses to be anonymous – is a good example of why he shouldn’t be. His writing is sometimes very nasty.”
This is an exaggeration. I happen to think Avi Shafran and Yaakov Menken are far more nasty than I am, and they use their real names! If you doubt this, see any of their posts on heterodox rabbis. They are always full of lies and snide remarks.
“A luxury he affords himself because of that anonymity.”
Untrue. And even if it was true, how would Harry know? I’m anonymous, remember? So what possible basis does he have for claiming that the way I behave on my blog is substantively different from the way I behave in public? He has no idea, and because he has no idea, he should say nothing. Making a groundless guess about someone is a breach of good manners, and let’s not ignore that he committed this small act of nastiness even though he is using his real name. So much for the theory that real names enhance civility.
“While I may agree or disagree with him, I find it very distasteful when he writes that way – and that occasionally it crosses the line of respecting human dignity.”
That’s fine. You’re entitled to make that statement, and if you were to make it on my comment thread I wouldn’t delete it. However, you have no good reason to think its produced by my anonymity. For all you know, what you see on the blog is the real me. And besides: plenty of our blogging colleagues use their real names, and they are nasty, too. So much for the theory that real names enhance civility.
“I would be willing to bet that this is why he guards his identity so religiously. He does not want people to think of him the way they do about ‘Dovbear.’”
You would lose that bet.
I am anonymous because I don’t want my wife and kids to have to put up with any of the unfriendly, unfair, vicious people who have crossed my blogging path. The world is full of jerks, and I am entitled to privacy. If it costs me credibility, so be it. That’s my choice, and I am entitled to make it.
“In a very self-serving way”
Questioning my motives is also a breach of good manners. I find it distasteful. (for real) And yet – let’s note again – the fact that we all know your name hasn’t stopped you from behaving towards me in an uncivil way. (I don’t mean the criticism. I mean the baseless guesses about my motives. Its not good etiquette).
“[H]e thus tries to actually make an argument for anonymity as a better way of communicating ideas. Anonymity – he says – forces respondents to consider the argument rather than focus on the identity.”
This is true. It is a better way to discuss ideas, for the reasons I gave.Moreover, it makes the blogging better. The comment threads are more lively and more fun, and we are able to discuss anything we like in any manner we like without having to endure tzitzis checks at shul and school.The people who oppose anonymity, generally, are the people who would like to be conducting those tzitzis checks.
“That would be true if it were not accompanied by the insults that frequently come with anonymous comments.”
Most of my comment writers are anonymous, and insults are very rare – and certainly not frequent.
In fact, after nearly nine years of reading thousands of my own comment threads and probably close to one million comments, most of which were left by anonymous people, I can safely say that Harry’s premise is false: Insults DO NOT frequently come with anonymous comments. (Readers: Do you agree with me?)
And again, even if Harry was right, it would still be true that anonymity forces respondents to consider the argument rather than focus on the identity. Harry hasn’t offered any counterargument. He merely introduced a (false) fact that did nothing to defeat my claim.
“He makes note of the fact that Rabbi Menken actually misused the knowledge he thought he had gained googling a commenter who used his real name. Rather than focusing on the content of his message he focused on the individual and used it to discredit him rather than respond to comment. But googling that name produced information about someone else with that name.”
Correct. This actually happened. And now that it has happened, why would anyone see any profit in using his real name on Cross Currents if he was after an honest exchange of ideas? Harry doesn’t answer this question either. Also, one of Menken’s colleagues on Cross Currents has been known to call commenters and bloggers on the phone and yell at them when they say things he doesn’t like. Real bullying stuff. Who in their right mind would want to be exposed to such madness? Who would want their kids and spouses to have to deal with it? It’s so much saner, so much simpler and so much safer to just use a pseudonym.
“Dovbear is right about that. Rabbi Menken was wrong. But that does not diminish his point about lowering the level of discourse when the comments are made anonymously.”
Perhaps it doesn’t diminish your point, but (sorry to keep pointing this out) you still haven’t gone to the trouble of proving your point. Do you have any data, or even an anecdote, that suggests anonymity lowers the level of discourse? Sure, Avi Shafran (who has his own self serving reason to oppose online anonymity) constantly says its true, but he’s never bothered to prove it either. Anyway, I have seen more comment threads and comments than the both of you combined, and I say it isn’t so. The level of discourse isn’t lowered when people are anonymous. Its enhanced. People are free to say what they like, and because no one is using a real name, no one can get hurt.
And can I make another point that Harry hasn’t grasped? You never know if someone is using his real name on a comment thread. Just because I might write a comment using the name Yaakov Shwartz is no proof that I really am Yaakov Shwartz and besides, with so many people named Yaakov Shwartz in the world, why should using my real name make me worry about how I come across on a blog thread? If someone complains to me about it in person, I can always say the comment was left by a different Yaakov Shwartz. So what have we gained?
“I believe Dovbear is wrong in the argument he makes favoring anonymity. He says that anonymity forces you to respond to content instead of focusing on the individual. That is a specious argument. “
Ok, you think its “specious”. Are you going to tell us why?
“If you have something to say it doesn’t make any difference if you know the identity of the commenter or not. If you want to attack a commenter with vile insults instead of responding to their content – you can do that without knowing their identity too.”
I guess not. Sigh. So to sum up the reasons why Harry is wrong about anonymity:
(1) Using your real name doesn’t guarantee civility. Plenty of online jerks use their real names. It has not made them more civil.
(2) Gaining credibility through the use of your name is a lazy short cut. Better to win it through the strength of your arguments.
(3) There’s no such thing as a “real name” on a comment board. You can never know if the person using the name Yaakov Shwartz on a comment board uses that names in real life, as well.
The people who wish to end online anonymity are also the people who think Kolko got a raw deal and would like to stone kofrim in Times Square. They’re the people who Google your name so they can cover it with mud or so they can call you up on the phone and harangue you into silence They hate anonymity but not because they value civility but because they value orthodoxy and anonymous blogging threatens it. Rather then muster solid counter arguments, these people want to know the names of the unorthodox bloggers so that they can be made to suffer for their ideas. This is what’s at stake – this is the real thinking behind the anti-anonymity push.