“If Your Website’s Full of Assholes, It’s Your Fault” is a 2011 post from well-known blogger Anil Dash in which he writes about a specific kind of challenge faced by bloggers and online media providers. They are often forced to defend their enterprises “because so many of the most visible, prominent, and popular places on the web are full of unkindness and hateful behavior.” He continues:
The examples are already part of pop culture mythology: We can post a harmless video of a child’s birthday party and be treated to profoundly racist non-sequiturs in the comments. We can read about a minor local traffic accident on a newspaper’s website and see vicious personal attacks on the parties involved. A popular blog can write about harmless topics like real estate, restaurants or sports and see dozens of vitriolic, hate-filled spewings within just a few hours. But that’s just the web, right? Shouldn’t we just keep shrugging our shoulders and shaking our heads and being disappointed in how terrible our fellow humans are?
How many times have you seen a website say “We’re not responsible for the content of our comments.”? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you’re trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible. You absolutely are. When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you’re the person who made it possible, it’s 100% your fault. If you aren’t willing to be a grown-up about that, then that’s okay, but you’re not ready… Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.
Dash offers some suggestions, some of which are for organizations and web communities much larger than philosophy blogs. But some are manageable, and employed here at Daily Nous, including moderating comments and having a comments policy. He also suggests that the site have “accountable identities”:
Truly anonymous commenting often makes it really easy to have a pile of shit on your website, especially if you don’t have dedicated community moderators. When do newspapers publish anonymous sources? When the journalists know the actual identity and credibility of the person, and decide it is a public good to protect their identity. You may wish to follow the same principles, or you can embrace one of my favorite methods of identity: Persistent pseudonyms. Let users pick a handle that is attached to all of their contributions in a consistent way where other people can see what they’ve done on the site.
I think the idea of persistent pseudonyms is a good one. Some commentators here already use this method, and I encourage those who do comment with pseudonyms to pick one (more distinctive than “anon,” “grad anon,” “another grad anon,” etc.) and stick with it. Fortunately, Daily Nous does not get a lot of problematic comments, so for now I will not require this. But there are other sites out there that do get some problematic comments, and the APA blog is going to get started at some point, and so they may wish to adopt such a practice, along with some of the others Dash recommends.
Fix your communities. Stop allowing and excusing destructive and pointless conversations to be the fuel for your business. Advertisers, hold sites accountable if your advertising appears next to this hateful stuff. Take accountability for this medium so we can save it from the vilification that it still faces in our culture. Because if your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault. And if you have the power to fix it and don’t do something about it, you’re one of them.