Anonymous Discourse on YouTube and the Internet

By Allen Dang

In recent years YouTube has cemented its place as the premier video sharing site online.  Given the wide variety of material posted, the site attracts a very large and diverse audience.  Viewers are also encouraged to post feedback in a designated “comment” section below the videos.  However, YouTube is infamous for the masses of immature, racist, sexist, or hateful comments that get posted, often by anonymous users or “trolls”.  Google, the owner of YouTube, is aiming to clean up the comment section by pushing users to log-in via their Google+ accounts and use their real names on YouTube, for both commenting and uploading videos.  This is seen as a successor to the failed “no pseudonyms” policy that Google+ implemented last year.  This policy undermines a user’s privacy and discourages free discourse, and as such YouTube should invest in other means to control their comment sections.

While the issue of privacy online is an ongoing one, it’s safe to say that no one – regardless of whether a pseudonym is used or not – is completely anonymous.  If it is posted online, it can be found.  For sensitive jobs, employers hire professionals to do a complete background investigation, even tracing IP addresses for years back.  Stalkers can do the same, with some difficulty.  But it’s not difficult to Google search a real name and come back with loads of personal information in a matter of minutes.  The privacy issue alone and the threat of lawsuits is enough to stop any sort of mandatory Google+ linking in its tracks.

But the real reason I am against the banning of pseudonyms is that it hurts the free and very colorful discourse that the internet provides.  Anonymity is a way for the normally more reserved person to let his/her true feelings be known; it’s a way for the person with a painful past to share their experiences free of shame.  It’s a way for the protestor to give his speech without fear of reprisal from his government, or for the person of a particular faith to discuss religion without persecution.  It’s a way for a twelve year old prodigy to engage in a meaningful conversation with a thirty year old father of two.  It’s a way for celebrities to be normal people for a little while.  Anonymity is a tremendous way to circumvent the social barriers that we as a society put between ourselves.

There are other models of social interaction online such as Facebook and Google+ which function almost solely with real names.  However, these are far from innocuous sites of civil conversation – you have the same range of comments as any other site.  Also, the model of social networking assumes that nearly all of your “contacts” or “friends” on the site are people that you already know.  Your personal information – at the very least, your real name – should already be known among that particular group of online friends.  Interaction with random strangers can be (and usually is) easily blocked by privacy settings.  On an open-forum site like YouTube, there is no such assumption in place.  So why connect the two – why make an anonymous, open-forum site into a social networking site?  The two serve entirely different purposes.  It’s a similar problem to Blizzard Entertainment’s experiment with RealID.  By trying to connect social networking with people’s in-game pseudonyms, Blizzard unleashed an incredible community backlash which quickly forced the policy into the ground.  People wanted to play their games under an assumed name to get away from reality, not to have it follow them.

Still, some people see this change as a welcome one.  The assumption is that people will be forced to comment more responsibly if their words are linked to their names and faces, thus leading to a decline in asinine comments and flaming.  However, the optional (at the moment) policy change took place about three weeks ago, yet there has not been a substantial improvement in the overall quality of YouTube posts.  The personal attacks and mindless insults are still out in force.  So is the real purpose here to clean up the comments, or is it something more sinister, like making your real information easier to sell to advertisers as Next Media Animation believes? (8) Could the comments even change if the policy were made mandatory?  In reality, they probably would not.  As Leslie Horn puts it, “Assholes are still assholes, even when they’re using their real names” (10).

What would happen is that the quality and creativity of many legitimate conversations would likely decline.  Passionate debate would certainly abate, as people tone down their opinions so as to avoid controversy.  If I chose to vigorously defend a particular faith under my real name online, it’s not only I who could face backlash, but also my family and friends.  As one anonymous blogger puts it, “”We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.” (11)  Even on this blog, I don’t post as vehemently on issues of contention, because my real name is attached to every word I write!  As such, it takes a lot more to get a strong stance out of me (like the threat of a bad grade), whereas I’d have less qualms about posting my opinions under the safety of an assumed name.

While removing anonymity from comments and discussions on YouTube may drop the number of “troll” and “flame” posts slightly, the subsequent hit to the quality of conversation would outweigh the benefits.  “As we gain in civility by being stripped of our virtual masks, we will likely lose in creative energy and innovation,” (4) wrote Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a view I wholeheartedly agree with.  The purpose of anonymous discourse is to have conversation free of personal risk or attack, a concept which the internet in general and YouTube in particular has been revolutionary in promoting.  It’s up to Google, if the comments are getting out of hand and verging on hate crimes and harassment, to improve the moderators and focus on regulation.  Don’t just take away anonymity, and don’t destroy this great way for people to freely voice their opinions.

(1) http://www.wired.com/business/2012/07/youtube-google-plus/

(2) http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/2012/07/youtube-yank-curtain-users-real-identities

(3) http://news.cnet.com/8301-33692_3-57479130-305/youtubes-weapon-against-crude-comments/

(4) http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/07/25/youtube_wants_commenters_to_use_their_real_names_.html

(5) http://www.technewsworld.com/story/75726.html

(6) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/24/youtube-real-names-users-comments_n_1699749.html

(7) http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/07/25/youtube_wants_commenters_to_use_their_real_names_.html

(8) http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2012/07/26/google-pleads-for-youtube-real-name-use/

(9) http://www.khou.com/news/technology/doug-blog/Google-pushes-for-real-names-on-YouTube-163838246.html

(10) http://gizmodo.com/5928558/lets-see-how-well-youtubes-real+name-comment-policy-is-working

(11) http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/04/06/policing-racism-online-liam-stacey-fabrice-muamba-abuse-twitter-youtube-facebook_n_1407795.html

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2 Comments to “Anonymous Discourse on YouTube and the Internet”

  1. I absolutely like your stance on this issue. I do agree that people would be more closed off in their own opinions and creativity because their identity will be known. It’s true that YouTube users have very mean and ignorant things to say, but I think that people need to understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Some opinions may hurt, but that’s the risk that people take by posting things online. Haters are gonna hate, and people aren’t going to stop shoving their opinions down other people’s throats. Why block the creativity that the world has to offer? I think if my identity were exposed for all to see, it’d create a hostile environment between me and those who disagree with what I have to say. People could even go really crazy and haunt others down for having an opinion, literally.

  2. I fear that you may be overvaluing the importance of comments being placed on youtube. Obviously there is no hard statistical data available to examine, but I think it’s safe to say a vast majority of the comments on youtube are pointless, and immature. There is hardly ever any intellectual debate taking place on that website, and youtube mainly serves as an unproductive place to waste ones time. If Google wants to be serious about eliminating bad comments, they would remove the comment option all together. Smart, educated conversation will always find a way to surface, and currently youtube is not the place for it.

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