Sunday, May 24, 2009

We Have To Know Who You Are

By Darryl Mason

There was a can of Dulux paint on a white rectangle stand in the Museum of Contemporary Art. It looked like it had been left there by whoever rolled on the wall's most recent coat of paint. But no.

The Can was Art.

It had a guard.

The crowd gathered in a wing of the MCA to hear, because most couldn't see, a seated debate on Blogging Versus Journalism, with mandatory humming microphone, were hardly likely to start kicking over artworks and trashing installations, but the Can of Paint had its own security guard. Apparently they were worried about the exhibit being "Jostled".

As the afternoon debate wore on, more guards arrived to erect a little security zone around the Can of Paint.

It was hard to concentrate on the debate itself. The action around the Can of Paint was fascinating, sometimes downright hypnotic.

As debater Margo Kingston explained how she had been "broken" by her correspondent work covering the first rise of Pauline Hanson, a gaggle of Japanese tourists walked past the debate and headed for the Can.

They drawn to it, like I was.

One of the younger tourists couldn't resist. He reached for the Can. Two security guards intervened, silently. The tourists left.

The debate continued. Margo Kingston revealed that the Sydney Morning Herald's Paul McGeogh had either got her into journalism or got her into blogging, it might have been both. She said McGeogh was in the room. Which one is he? There's easy a dozen aging men in the room who could pass for McGeogh. I depleted the targets in a visual search of the crowd by only looking for McGeoghs who looked like they seen some of the most goddawful fucking shit no-one could ever imagine in some foreign hell war zone, but there were at least six who could have passed for...there was more action at the Can of Paint.

Another clutter of tourists who were also totally ignorant of the hundred or so people and five debaters they were all quietly listening to, headed for the Dulux. This is the problem of holding a debate in an open, functioning wing of a popular museum dead centre in a major tourist zone.

The atmosphere was all wrong. It was too clinical, the room was too white, all the bloggers should have been standing, it would have been better in a pub, you needed at least one big drink to get through 90 minutes of it. Maybe it needed an element of bingo or something. Every time a debater finished a statement, they called out a number.

And it was all so polite. The heated argument count was zero. Debaters Tim Blair and Antony Lowenstein met before the debate and greeted each other pleasantly.

What? No chair throwing?

I thought there was supposed to be at least half-a-bogan amongst the debaters to get some trouble started, to fire it all up. Alas, no.

It grew increasingly difficult to concentrate on the quiet debate.

I kept getting distracted thinking about what would have happened if Channel Nine and the Murdoch media already had a pay-per-story or video viewing debit system in place, as their owners dream they one day will, all through the hilarious Chk Chk Boom! Suckers!' fakery.

What would happen now the story has been revealed as fake if hundreds of thousands of paying users had coughed about four or five digital dollars each to watch a couple of Clare "Two Wogs Fighting" videos and read a half dozen stories over a few days?

The story wasn't real. Consumers would have paid for fictitious news. How would the media companies repay all they had cheated with this fluff? How often could they get away with it? Would a future where fake news stories are more popular than real ones, and more essentially profitable, come into reality?

If they sell you news and it turns out to be fake, or worse, it turns out they knew at some point before they stopped selling it that the story was not what it seemed, or what was originally pitched through headlines, will everyone who paid actually want a refund, even if its offered? Will they care if the fluff is entertaining and distracting enough?

Debater Tim Blair, of the Daily Telegraph, raised the intensity level of the debate to just above tepid when he took a ridiculous blog killing idea out for a bit of a spin in front of whoever all those people were.

He sounded enthusiastic about the day when all comments on blogs will herald the name of the person who posted it.

In short, the age of anonymous commenting comes to an end, on all blogs, not just his own.

It's a strange thing for someone working at a media organisation that is now relying on the thousands of mostly anonymous-posted comments that appear each day across its blogs, its news stories, to keep the online business model healthy to come out and champion. Online news sites needs comments, lots of them, and most of them are anonymous.

And it was slightly surreal that someone already caught up in a dodgy blog comments-related controversy was actually saying doing away with anonymous commenting would solve many of the problems bloggers face with the comments that sometimes pour into, or out of, their blogs.

Some problems might be solved for Blair with mandatory online ID.

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

If there was an online equivalent of the photo ID, at a guess, I'd say there'd be about 60% less comments on news stories at all of Murdoch's online media. About the same across most of its blogs, probably 80% less comments overall at Andrew Bolt's, and that's not good news. Heavy comment volumes help pay the bills.

Imagine if all those Liberal Party staffers had to hail Peter Costello and rail against Malcolm Turnbull under their real names?

People thoroughly enjoy anonymous commenting. Obviously. It's why it's so popular.

People love making up a fake online identity and calling themselves a twisted moniker of a childhood superhero or their pet's name, or something ordinary like WB, for example, or something weird but catchy like Startled Rabbit In The Headlights. There usually is no consequence for comments made that are not under your own name.

It becomes a different game altogether in a reality of mandatory online ID when every time you read something at 1am, hammered, and you cut loose at some blog about it, go off, your full name permanently imprinted in online archives above some crazed screed, mostly regrettable virtriol, demented thoughts and nerve-shredding opinions, occasional but plentiful abuse. All of it under your own name, accessible by Google.

Commenting at blogs, and now commenting under certain news stories, is popular because it can be done anonymously, without leaving too much of a trace behind. Take away the anonymity, and the comment counts will plunge, instantly.

Every blogger with a healthy roll call of anonymous commenters knows that.

Anonymity sparks not only creativity, but honesty. People lose passion when what they've got to say has to be said under their own name, forever.

And mandatory online ID would mean that holding fake online identities for the purpose of commenting regularly across blogs you love, and those that really make you swear, out loud, but you can't stop reading, that would no longer be legal.

But why should a thought, a bunch of fascinating facts, a torrent of grinding aggro, or a brain steaming opinion, have to be attached to a person's name or identity anyway?

I'm not sure that most people over 40 comprehend how many in the generation growing up online view the ability to comment anonymously, under an alias, or a festival of fictitious avatars.

They're not hiding. It doesn't matter.

It's not who said That Great Thing that is important anymore, if it ever was at all. The identity can never be fully trusted anyway, so it doesn't matter who posted the comment that makes a hundred other regular commenters at a blog or forum flip out and go nuts..

The only thing that matters is what has been said.

The most wild, but true, fact wins.

The funniest line wins.

The most spectacular leaking of explosive secret government documents wins.

The sharpest observation wins.

The clearest 30 word explanation of the most complex news stories or world events wins.

The most apoplectic but hilarious tirade of abuse wins.

Ideas win.

Not personalities, or even a person, certainly not a name.

It's the words, the ideas, that matter.

Nothing more.

All of that, most of that, it goes when mandatory ID is required to step into blog clubs to air your views, or to even add a mild voice of dissent to the online groupthink roar about the latest shocking news event.

Killing Anonymity Kills Comments.

It's that simple.

Before I left the museum I decided to try and get a photo of the Can of Paint on a White Stand with a Security Guard.

But the Security Guard said no.

I left, I didn't want any trouble.