“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. ” Oscar Wilde
That’s the idea behind the Truth Box on MySpace. With anonymity, comes truth: members can post to your “Truth Box” anonymously. In theory, they can say they have a crush on you; or that they like your taste in music.
In practice, it’s more like the coward’s box.
In the same way that radio first gave away music without penalty to lure listeners and buyers, and that search engines and outlets gave away premium content without penalty to lure readers, we gave away the consequences of standing behind one’s opinion… without penalty.
Or in other words, in hopes of keeping readers glued — and returning — to web pages, we gave people the gift of saying things they would never ever have the cojones to say in person.
I bring it up because in one week I saw anonymous comments posted in a Truth Box that were made to wound, Iag0-like, without consequence; and anonymous comments posted on a news story about Detroit Public Schools that, had they been uttered in public would have possibly gotten the poster fired, put in jail or at the very least charged with racist hate speech.
Then I saw a review of a great little restaurant on Yelp; the review was so bad, I wondered: could it have been put there by a competitor? But there was no way to know.
Oh sure, anonymity and the Dark Side of the Web are old discussions. I tell my kids: “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.” Right. (In the case of the “Truth Box,” it wasn’t that hard to figure out it was put there by a girl who was mad at my daughter. Confronted with it, she admitted it; but she looked like an idjit in the process.)
But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if anonymity is the same gambit as “free music” or “free content” — with a similar tangle coming down the road. Even though we sense there are inherent issues (um, child stalkers, hate speech, short sellers, just to name a few of the more tangible ones), it’s a trade someone is willing to make — because someone will make money from it.
Print newspapers and magazines have discovered to their peril that giving away content without penalty for using it backfired — content was expensive to produce, cheap and easy to take. Musicians, writers and artists are still figuring out how to manage content on the Internet, with many of the same issues.
And in the meantime, We the People expect to take what we want, listen to what we want, and say what we want, when we feel like it — without penalty. In fact, a recent case just protected anonymous comments from libel charges (it’s under appeal).
Websites like Fairshare track your content across the Internet and can tell who’s taking and using it without your permission. And Lunch.com, a new startup, won’t let you review anonymously. They say non-anonymous postings add credibility.
I’m NO advocate of BigBrother type following. Stephen Baker’s well-written book and articles on the subject make me physically ill (if you haven’t seen them, go here and here). But as it becomes easier to see who has been on your blog with tools like Lijit (not available yet for WordPress.com), or commented, or Yelped… maybe we should dispense with anonymous comments completely.
Yeah, it would take the fun from visiting some sites. We comment now because we want to be heard: but do we want the world to know we said it? We might not, if we knew someone was listening.
So just to strike a blow against cowardice (and, heaven forbid, in favor of that vague term people call “personal branding” — of course, it’s tricky if your “personal brand” is a closet racist) maybe it’s time to go back to:
- paying for something we really want, if it cost a lot to make
- saying what we mean and standing behind it.