If the internet were a city, the comment sections of some of even the most popular websites would be the dregs, where parents wouldn't dare bring their children and even the most optimistic would feel hopeless. Racism, sexism, and outright bullying of absolute strangers - to the extent of encouraging suicide - isn't uncommon, and those who contribute to it protect themselves from retribution by denying their identity.
Lately, though, some of the internet's heavy hitters have made some attempts at instilling some accountability in internet dialogue. Their efforts might make for good PR, but will accomplish little more than that.
YouTube has long been one of the roughest sites on the web in terms of internet commenting, which should come as no surprise. Given its size and the ability it grants to anyone who wants to submit a video they'd made, YouTube has unintentionally become sort of a massive, never-ending high school talent show where the hecklers are allowed to hurl whatever insults they want and the consequences are felt only by those performing.
With that in mind, YouTube has begun moving ahead on its promise made at last month's Google I/O conference.
First announced in a June 29th blog post, YouTube has begun prompting its users and commenters to use their real names by linking to the Google+ accounts that the comapny apparently assumes they all have.
An option to comment without using your real name is still available, although Google is not intent on permitting it without giving users the run-around. As BetaBeat's Jessica Roy described it yesterday, the site "basically guilts you into agreeing."
If you still insist on remaining anonymous, you have to tell Google why: “My channel is for a show or character” or “My channel name is well-known for other reasons” are two options. “I want to remain anonymous,” is–unsurprisingly–not one.
However, YouTube's blog post does make it clear that anonymous commenting is still an option.
We realize that using your full name isn’t for everyone. Maybe people know you by your YouTube username. Perhaps you don’t want your name publicly associated with your channel. To continue using your YouTube username, just click “I don’t want to use my full name” when you see the prompt.
Though the ability to opt-out does take a little air out of this movement's tires, it's still a commendable admission by YouTube that it needs to clean up its streets. It also isn't the only recent sign of an impending War on Trolls, either.
The case of UK resident Nicola Brookes that came forward last month essentially forced Facebook to comment on the dark side of trolling. After Brookes made a seemingly innocent comment about a contestant on the American Idol-esque television show The X-Factor, she was inexplicably targeted with anonymous harrassment, including the creation of a fake Facebook account in her name that allegedly posted "indecent comments" and attempted to "lure young girls." Brookes took a stand, though, and won a lawsuit that will force Facebook to come forward with the identities of those behind the anonymous comments and the false Facebook profile. Once she obtains those identities, she's free to pursue individual civil action against each of them. Facebook, meanwhile, made its expected PR move, declaring that "there is no place for bullying or harrassment on Facebook."
Anonymous trolling has an interesting future ahead of it. As society at large becomes more and more entrenched with the web, our identities upon it will become more and more clear, and anonymity increasingly difficult to assume. At the same time, increasing awareness and new stories of people like Nicola Brookes will drive the conversation surrounding online bullying, putting more sites like YouTube and Facebook on the hot seat to do something about it.
Of course, not all internet trolling is so detrimental, in terms of both the nature of its content and the potential revenue for the site hosting it. Just look to the comment section of this October 2011 ESPN column on Tim Tebow. Sparked by readers' exhaustion of the Tim Tebow discussion on ESPN, a thread now known as "Occupy Tebow" prompted internet users at large to create anonymous accounts and spam the comment section the ESPN article with the "X > Tebow" meme. Surpsingly, it's still active. Several new comments have been posted to the article today, nine months since the article was written.
The real question, though, is whether eliminating anonymous cruelty on the web is really possible. The simple fact that YouTube's attempt is voluntary suggests that it isn't yet. And given the massive amounts of traffic ESPN has seen from the Occupy Tebow comments, there isn't much of a financial reason to eliminate anonymity. For now at least, the major internet companies whose earnest content is accompanied by occasionally offensive user content have no better option than to make it look like they're actually doing something. We're just supposed to overlook the fact that not much can actually be done.