Friday, February 6, 2009
Criticism of anonymity on the internet focuses to a great extent on its impact on the quality of information; the accuracy, accountability, intelligence, fairness, decency, civility, etc. of information that is contributed anonymously. But crowd wisdom has a remarkable capacity for correcting itself (e.g. Wikipedia), and the profusion of idiotic, slanderous and hateful commentary on the internet can be dismissed for what it is. Anonymity udeniably results in a lot of annoying noise and garbage on the net, and provides some astonishing insights into how mean and stupid many people are - and what breathtakingly poor spellers - but maybe that all comes with the territory. Undoubtedly it degrades the quality of discourse, but perhaps a more serious concern is what it does to the anonymous poster? I speak from personal experience; increasingly, I have an urge to comment on everything I read in the newspapers and on the net. When I come across something particularly well put or trenchant or funny, I have a strange compulsion to notify the author of my approval. Why? And more commonly, when I find something particularly stupid or obnoxious, I have a gleeful urge to respond with some withering, witty rejoinder. It's not a part of me I wish to encourage; with anonymity, one loses an inhibitor that is essential for health of character. A related phenomenon is road rage; compartmentalized and anonymized in their cars, people take on a behavior that is completely out of character, and even end up killing each other. Over at the AL blog yesterday, the Annoyed Librarian - who I think is at his best when he keeps things light and doesn't get too shrill - responded angrily to a letter from John Buschman of the Progressive Librarian's Guild to Library Journal editor Francine Fialka. Buschman chides LJ for dropping its Criticas column - one of LJ's "few voices of real diversity and alternatives" - while continuing to host the worthless anonymous rantings of the AL. Buschman also attacks the principle of anonymity more generally, and attaches, for Fialka's edification, a 2007 Progessive Librarian editorial "On anonymity in libraryland blogging" by himself, Mark Rosenzweig and Kathleen de la Pena McCook. Personally I find Buschman's self-righteous indignation and overwrought prose (e.g. "The zeitgeist and polity seem to have moved on, but LJ's ineffable [?] tin ear elevates an illegitimate crank poseur to prominence.") to be a tad off-putting, and I think his attack on the AL's conservative politics misses the mark; the AL is relatively scrupulous about attacking the politicization of the library profession rather than its politics per se. Besides, although I'd be very surprised to learn that the AL is actually a soft-headed liberal like me, her dogged championing of the library as an institution for the betterment - rather than entertainment - of the masses, is to my mind a progressive ideal. Nonetheless, AL's post about Buschman, Buschman's earnest responses, and the nearly 200 comments - most of them anonymous and jeering, are a good example of too much uninhibited behavior. Although I enjoy following the Annoyed Librarian, I find her defense of her own anonymity completely inconsistent with the frequent allusions in her blog to the importance of moral character - but she probably doesn't care.