Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hiding behind anonymity

Sensible thoughts by Esther Dyson on the downside of anonymity on the internet:

Internet Evolution: You’ve had a front-row seat for the commercialization, regulation, and funding of the Internet. What’s been the biggest surprise for you about how the Internet has evolved? And what’s been your biggest disappointment?

Esther Dyson:
Well, surprise and disappointment are the same…There are two big things: First, I was a much bigger fan of anonymity then than I am now. I thought it was cool. And it is, but it turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior...It’s like a lot of things. I’m pro choice, but I think abortion is an unfortunate thing. I think the same thing about anonymity: Everybody should have the right to it, but it’s not something one wants to encourage. And that’s not weasel words, that’s the reality of it. [Anonymity] should be allowed. People should be able to make that choice, and there are many reasons to make that choice. If you live in an oppressive regime, you may well want people to be able to remain anonymous or have secret communications. But at the same time, it should not be encouraged, and it should be acknowledged that it’s a response to a bad situation.

No one can seriously argue that we live in "an oppressive regime" that justifies all the anonymous political comment on local chatboards, blogs, and websites. Not many locals can justify remaining anonymous, though SF's political community is small and anonymity sometimes allows people to say things that need saying without making enemies. And I suspect that some of those who post anonymous comments to District 5 Diary work for the city and could be embarrassed by using their real names while slumming on this site.

When anonymous bloggers and posters insult others, however, they abuse their anonymity. A recent case in point is the casual insult doled out to yours truly by SF Citizen:

SF Citizen wrote:
The latest chapter in the long story of San Francisco’s Bicycle Plan began today with this filing from the office of San Francsico City Attorney Dennis Herrera. (Earlier chapters of this tale dealt with local social gadlfly and self-confessed JFK conspiracy theory crank Robert “Crazy Rob” Anderson and his successful efforts to get the city to do an environmental impact study.)

Rob wrote:
More insults? If I’m so crazy, why did two judges agree with us about the injunction against the city and Judge Busch’s final decision agreed on the merits of our case? You prefer to do the quick, chickenshit hit without really engaging with the specifics. Do you have anything substantive to say about the JFK assassination? I did and I put my thoughts into that book review. Overall, your approach is pretty lame intellectually.

SF Citizen wrote:
Pretty much the same old insult, which actually isn’t a insult. Your apellation in this town is “Crazy Rob,” whether you like it or not. I didn’t make that up, other people did. This is the second time I’ve explained to you what the quote marks mean. The reason why you won on the EIR issue is that you had a very strong case and, (apparently) at the very least, competent counsel. IMO, it wasn’t even close. Not sure what specifics you want to engage in. JFK (or Nicole Simpson for that matter) was killed by an unbalanced person acting alone. This is true whether Cased Closed has typos in it or not. What you call a magic bullet, I call a regular bullet, one that behaved as other bullets do.

Rob wrote:
What “other people” call me Crazy Rob? And who are you? Why are you hiding behind anonymity? Why aren’t there any bylines on the items on this blog? The obvious answer: because you’re chickenshit. And your opinion on the JFK assassination is worthless without some specifics, which I supplied a lot of in my review of Posner’s crappy book. My review in fact had nothing at all to do with “typos” in the book, an additional bit of fakery on your part.

SF Citizen wrote:
The way it goes is something like this generally---we can’t do such and such “because of that Crazy Rob Anderson.” See? The people who say this are irked by your efforts with the injunction. Are you the kind of person who gets all offended and curls up in the fetal position by this kind of thing? Really? I’d think you’d wear any criticism like a badge of honor. Your opinion about the JFK killing is wrong, simply. What do you want me to do about that? Can you live with my opinion being different than yours? Can you go on with life? I hope so. The problem with Case Closed is that really slowed the momentum that was building up after that ridiculous Oliver Stone movie. That’s why the conspiracy theorists spend their timing attacking this particular publication. Ever so briefly: “the Zapruder film, which shows the fatal head shot knocking President Kennedy violently backwards; and a clear exposition of the Single Bullet Theory, the heart of the Warren Commission’s explanation of the assassination.” In fact, JFK’s head went forward before it want backward, on the Zap film. In fact, the “magic bullet” behaved like a normal bullet. I wrote of the general beef against Case Closed: JFK (or Nicole Simpson for that matter) was killed by an unbalanced person acting alone. This is true whether Cased Closed has typos in it or not. You are in the same category as the people in the 9-11 truth squad IMO. Same idea, different generation.

Rob wrote:
A grateful nation thanks SF Citizen for clearing up the JFK assassination. And he isn't, you understand, calling me crazy; he's simply passing on what other people---who also happen to be anonymous---call me. Not only am I crazy because of the successful litigation against the city on the Bicycle Plan, but I'm a "crank" on a par with the folks who think 9/11 was a US government conspiracy, even though my review of Gerald Posner's book didn't speculate about conspiracy at all. I simply pointed out some serious shortcomings of the Warren Commission's version of events, while noting how disingenuous Posner was in handling both the single bullet theory and witnesses who insisted on contradicting the offical version of the assassination.

I'm not particularly thin-skinned, but surely I'm not alone in finding this sort of thing contemptible. The anonymous SF Citizen insists on insulting me, and he has strong opinions on the JFK assassination. So why not simply write a bylined piece on SF Citizen about the assassination? Because he's afraid others will do to him what he's doing to me---call him a crank. Which makes him doubly chickenshit.

More on anonymity in city politics: Mayor Newsom's anonymous critics.

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