From Whom It May Concern

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all”. This mantra, instilled into preschoolers by their parents, seems to be forgotten once one reaches middle school. Bullying has always been a problem amongst pre-teens, something that tends to clear up with ‘maturity’. However, with advances in technology new forms of cyber-bullying have evolved, trapping even supposedly logical and mature adults into its web. It is not uncommon to find anonymous attack comments on blogs, newspaper articles, and even Twitter. What’s worse is the ability by anyone to create an almost anonymous online identity, allowing them to say what they could not or would not do in normal, polite society.

mranonymous(Photo courtesy of Crenshaw Communications)

A few examples in particular come to mind. First, there is the Canadian model, Liskula Cohen, who was tormented online through a blog written by an anonymous author. She recently won a Supreme Court ruling in New York City, allowing her to force Google to unmask the identity of the mystery blogger, who’s blog has since been taken down. WIth this new information, Cohen is able to pursue a defamation suit against the woman who took to her blog, calling Cohen a “psychotic, lying, whoring…skank” (Ottawa Citizen).

There is the other, obvious example of those who comment frequently and anonymously on newspaper websites, forums, and other such public media.  During the height of the Queen’s University “Mantlegate” scandal, as well as various other high-profile University/AMS blunders, it was not at all uncommon to visit the Journal website only to find individuals hiding behind snarky screen-names and making libelous, unfounded, and overall hurtful comments.

Most recently, politically-involved students at Queen’s were terrorized by a Twitter account going by the handle Mac-Corry (the name of an infamous building on campus, home to offices and small classrooms).  Under this pseudonym, what I would take to be a disgruntled and bored student was able to air his or her grievances with various individuals on campus, while lauding others and making anonymous remarks to some Queen’s professors and faculty who use the social-networking site.  Not uncommon are reports of celebrities being impersonated on Facebook or Twitter and other such sites, wreaking havoc amongst their close-knit professional circles and letting down fans who believed they had found their one true, direct link to their favourite celebrity.

Through all these examples runs a common thread – an individual who is too cowardly to own up to their own opinions and comments and who hides behind a pseudonym to make them.  It is as if people feel they have an entitlement to online anonymity.  However, in an age where many were brought up to believe the Internet is unsafe and we should do everything in our power to protect our identities and personal information, who is to blame and, in truth, who can really blame these people?  With more and more people being judged by their online persona, it is not really unsurprising that people are unwilling to make remarks which can not only be traced back to them but may also be considered against the norm, or pushing boundaries.

As evidenced by this blog, I am a true proponent of cultivating one’s online identity and keeping it in sync with what one would portray in a regular social setting.  I’m of the persuasion that if you are going to dish it out, be it opinion, sarcasm, or criticism, you should be able to take it as well.  Without owning up to your own work, the true possibility of having a constructive and open dialogue about it with anyone.  By attaching your name to something, you are in essence practicing self-censorship.  Think of it like the “Beer Goggles” application on Gmail, which asks mathematical questions to prevent users from, say, drunkenly emailing their boss about their horrid choice in corporate-wear at 4am after a more than a few brews at the local pub.  Unfortunately, although it is becoming harder to mask one’s identity online thanks to new court rulings, availability of IP addresses, and phenomena such as the “verified” Twitter account, there is no guarantee that our society is heading in a direction where one’s online and real self will match up.  However, it is also fully possible that we are heading towards an internet reality where in order to post content you will have to ‘verify’ your identity, much like those ‘verified’ Twitter accounts.

Whatever you decide, I think it is important to abide by that cardinal rule taught in kindergarten…with a tiny amendment.  If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all…unless you’re willing to attach your real name to it and be ready for the counter-criticism that comes with making such comments.

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