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5 July 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:18am

Shirky: “People always said nasty things. You just couldn’t hear them”

The “truth” of online commenters.

By Jon Bernstein

A predictably entertaining and informative interview with the social media thinker Clay Shirky in this morning’s Guardian. The author of Here Comes Everybody and the forthcoming Cognitive Surplus has his critics, not least because of his overwhelmingly optimistic view of the impact of the web, but he is always engaging and thought-provoking.

The piece touches on this debate and ends with a discussion of the apparent paradox of the web as a place of human generosity, but also of bile, as epitomised by many comments left at the bottom of articles. Shirky’s response:

So, there’s two things to this paradox. One is that those conversations were always happening. People were saying those nasty things to one another in the pub or whatever. You just couldn’t hear them before. So it’s a change in our awareness of truth, not a change in the truth.

Then there’s this second effect, that anonymity makes people behave more meanly. What I think is going to happen there is we are slowly going to set up islands of civil discourse. There’s no way to make the internet not anonymous — and if there was, the most enthusiastic consumers of that technology would be Iranian and Chinese and Burmese governments. But there are ways of saying, while you’re here, use your real identity. We need to set up the social norms which say in this space you need to use your real names, or some well-known handle.

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Whenever you say that, people cry censorship, but frankly? Fuck off.

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