If ever you are feeling a little bloated with faith in humanity and want to shed a few pounds of hope for the future, Philly.com comments section is the place to go for a for a painful reminder how far we have not come from those apes in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey bashing each other’s brains in with the bones of their brethren. This goes without saying, of course, but the minute we stop saying it, devolution has already won. Case in point: tucked beneath this eyebrow-raising story about the curious car crash that derailed PA Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s testimony before a grand jury — empaneled by PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille, looking into improper leaks from her office — for the second time in as many months, comes this high-minded debate amidst the confederacy of dunces that laid siege to the comments section of Philly.com around the dawn of the Internet and has held its ground ever since.
The fatal flaw of anonymous commenting is built into the name. Anonymity breeds contempt. It subverts the social compact that keeps polite society reasonably so: We know who you are and you will be held accountable for your actions. The hierarchy of the newspaper industry was comprised of old gray men out of their depth when it came to the Internet, so it was relatively easy for young tech whiz kids to get them to drink deep the Kool-Aid of the inarguable necessity of anonymity. Big mistake.
Social scientists have long complained about the coarsening of American life. The Great Dumbing Down. That a once great democracy is devolving into idiocracy. It’s often been said that online comments sections hold a mirror up to society, and it’s tempting to say that we are getting the commentary we deserve. But that’s not really accurate. Yes, they are a reflection, but a reflection of only a relatively small angry-to-the-point-of-hateful band of the citizenry that bothered to show up in the mirror, and they always seem to be the loudest one’s with the least to share, the know-nothings proudly doffing their hatfuls of hollow, and the one’s with the biggest axe to grind and the belief that they have no agency to do anything about it.
By unwittingly over-representing the hobgoblins of tiny minds, comments sections are actually holding up a funhouse mirror to society. The problem is not in our stars, it’s not even in ourselves, dear Brutus, it’s the inability of newspapers to control the conversation. They lost control of that conversation the day they allowed commenters to cloak themselves witless aliases and swim at their own risk, absent parental supervision. It was the digital equivalent of leaving a can of spray paint next to a nice expanse of whitewashed wall and acting shocked when it’s covered in graffiti the next morning.