December 16, 2009 // Uncategorized

With anonymity comes loss of humanity

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Literature aficionados may recall that opening line from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” a novel set in London and Paris about the French Revolution. But that famous phrase written 150 years ago also applies to how information is spread today via the Internet.

It is the best of times for obvious reasons. We literally have information on virtually any topic at any time of the day at our fingertips. Just tap out the topic of your interest, and you can read/learn about anything you ever imagined.

The concept for those of us old enough to have relied upon the old Funk & Wagnalls’ encyclopedias for information still resonates with me. The ability to answer any question about any topic in a blink of the eye is something those of us from that age bracket will never take for granted.

The hours spent in libraries, oftentimes in a futile search for information, are haunting memories from my education. To this day, I still don’t think I know how to efficiently move about and maximize my time spent in search of information in a library.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter anymore. I have all the access to information I need at my laptop on the Internet.

But like so many other advantages that come to us in life, there is a flip side, an equal and opposite action if you will, an insidious side that entraps and corrupts. It is the worst of times too.

Besides the obvious access to the seedier side of life that is so readily available on the Internet, we have allowed the creation of the individual who is empowered by anonymity, which in turn allows that person to abandon human decency as it pertains to the treatment of others.

I, along with two partners, own a Web site that chronicles Notre Dame football. It caters to the fanatics. The editors of the site pour a steady stream of information to our subscribers by reporting on games, practices, press conferences, interviews, high school football recruiting, etc., which in itself is a good and positive thing. It provides educated, well-thought feedback on what is happening in the Notre Dame football world.

But with such a venue comes the creation of the “message board” world. Our pay message board is called “The Four Horsemen Lounge,” named after the famous Notre Dame backfield from 1924. People come to this message board for “serious discussion of Notre Dame sports,” or at least that’s how we described it upon its inception.

But that’s not what it is, or at least, that’s only a small part of what it is now. Subscribers who join the site create a message board name like ND4ever or Rockne32 to identify themselves. This anonymity has created some interesting interplay from subscriber to subscriber or subscriber to editor. As an editor of the site, when I state an opinion, my full name appears. But only myself and the other editors are identified.

That anonymity has created a world in which disrespect for one another is rampant, where cruel, judgmental, vulgar comments are fostered, and where the cloak of namelessness allows for no accusation or insult to be too far “out there” to hurl.

Several years ago, when the Web site was created, the concept had a purity to it. Notre Dame fans sharing ideas with other Notre Dame fans and reading about the program through the eyes of the people reporting on the process who are up close and personal.

Those elements still exist to some extent because there remain some intelligent, thoughtful and respectful individuals.

What concerns me is the next generation of Internet readers because they are growing up in this anonymous world in which hiding behind a name like WeisGuy1 empowers a person to be as nasty and demeaning as he would like toward player, coach or fellow subscriber without the repercussions of identification or accountability.

That’s not to say that those from the older generation are not among the more outspoken and disrespectful. But most of those people grew up in an era when the expression of an opinion bore a degree of responsibility. You couldn’t hide behind the wall. The old fashioned “letter to the editor” required a full name and address sent to the newspaper — and verification that you sent it — before your opinion was printed.

These truly are the best and the worst of times that we live in when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge and the sharing of thoughts on the Internet. Unfortunately, with those benefits comes the creation of a monster that is a hateful and destructive beast.

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