Google is trying to clean up the Web, one comment at a time. Earlier this week it introduced a new feature designed to drain the online cesspool better known as YouTube comments.
YouTube has long been the repository of anonymous, illiterate, hateful, and just plain brain-dead comments since its inception. Now Google is trying to gently urge people to post videos and comments using their real names -- more specifically, their Google+ identities -- in the quaint notion that if people are held accountable by name, they might possibly act a little less like jerks. Maybe.
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It is, however, purely voluntary. You can still post things to YouTube under a pseudonym like deadpuppies666 or singledigitIQ, but now you need to tell them why first -- like you're posting as a fictional character for a show, a music artist, a business, or you need to remain anonymous for some other reason. It's less of a stop sign and more of a speed bump on the road to rudeness.
Is this a good thing? I think so. This has been a growing problem on the Web for a long time, and Google is hardly alone in trying to combat the problem of nasty online behavior. Last year blogger Anil Dash wrote an essay titled "If your Website's full of a******s, it's your fault." His point: It's up to individual sites to police their own backyards and clean up the mess, regardless of what it may cost.
Here in Cringeville, nearly all my regular commenters are fairly collegial and congenial. It wasn't always that way, though. I'm not sure what happened -- I think I may have scared off the wackier ones by suggesting that Glenn Beck is a bit nutso, or they just got bored trying to pick a fight. Maybe the shadowy entities who moderate comments for InfoWorld shunted them off to the virtual equivalent of Gitmo. That thought alone is deeply satisfying.
In any event, I'm happier this way, though not all bloggers agree. For example, PR impresario turned angel investor Peter Shankman claims to "love his haters" and thinks I should love mine too. His rationale:
If you have haters, you're shaking stuff up. If you don't have haters, you're not doing enough to change the status quo, and you're not living up to your potential. Without haters every once in a while, you're just coasting. And you can never, ever afford to coast.
Yeah, maybe. Or perhaps they're a bunch of cranks who need to go out and get a life. If they don't hate you, they'll just move onto the next blog and hate them.
I'm fine with that. What isn't fine are anonymous attacks, either on the author of a post or other commenters. You want to fight about something, OK, sure, it's a free country, go crazy. But please fight fair.
Though I can see circumstances where anonymity is required for personal safety or, possibly, continued employment, by and large I think I believe people should own up to what they posted online and be willing to defend it. That doesn't necessarily mean using the name on one's birth certificate for everything you do online, but a consistent, responsible online identity would be a good start.
Will using real names help clean up the Web's cesspools? Post your comments below (using any name you like) or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, "Google to YouTube users: Don't be evil," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.