Internet Goons

Obscene phone callers rarely reveal their names and numbers. Those who write abusive letters to movie celebrities almost never include a signature. The loud-mouthed drunk at the ballgame doesn??¢â???¬â???¢t shout, ??¢â???¬?????You Stink! And I am Sam Smith of Elm City!??¢â???¬  It seems there is something about anonymity which brings out the worst in us. If you doubt that, come with me into the often-weird world of Internet chat rooms and message boards.

The Internet was supposed to be a boon to reasoned debate because it allowed anyone who could get online a chance to participate. Unfortunately, the ??¢â???¬?????screen name??¢â???¬  was invented, and people were able to disguise themselves with cute little pseudonyms like CuddleKitty934 and CoolDudeJJ33.

Participants not only create new names, they??¢â???¬â???¢re able to create entire identities. I suspect most self-described 18-year-old Scandinavian women named Inga who collect and wear string bikinis are, in reality, more likely to be middle-aged, pot-bellied guys named Lou who collect and wear string cheese

Here??¢â???¬â???¢s what generally happens: someone posts a message on a particular topic, someone else posts a response, and others join in, either agreeing or disagreeing with the first couple of posters. Eventually, however, an ??¢â???¬?????Internet Goon??¢â???¬  arrives, hurling invective, calling names and disrupting civility. Posters then tend to respond to the Goon, and decorum deteriorates quickly. The Goon gets the attention he craves, and then moves on to another message board or chat room where he can enrage a whole new set of posters.

It??¢â???¬â???¢s not too difficult to imagine the real life of an Internet Goon. Ignored by his co-workers or neighbors, stuck in a job he hates (if he has one at all), he sits and seethes in front of a computer screen, where he is finally able to get some attention. People respond to him and talk to him and about him. His outbursts can change the course of any discussion on any topic. Finally, people actually care about what he says. He is somebody.

Most magazines and newspapers require a name and legitimate mailing address before they will print a letter to the Editor, which seems reasonable to me. Why should anyone take your views seriously if you won??¢â???¬â???¢t even identify yourself? The Lincoln-Douglas debates would seem much less compelling if they had been the LuckyLadyBug-hot2handle debates.

In my role as a television performer, I have a strict rule about letters. If they are unsigned, I don??¢â???¬â???¢t read them. I might be interested in what Mr. Howard Smithson of Ohio has to say, but I don??¢â???¬â???¢t care much about the views of ??¢â???¬?????Angry in Akron??¢â???¬ .

Internet Blogs have proliferated in the last year or two and the marketplace of ideas has expanded, but most bloggers identify themselves. You know who is doing the writing, which can help you assess what the writer has to say. Most of the responses to the various blogs, however, come from people who hide behind a screen name. And, of course, most writers can count on our friends, the Internet Goons, to toss a few verbal grenades.

Still, if you have to be called an idiot, a moron, or worse, it??¢â???¬â???¢s less hard on the ego to be called those things by someone who identifies himself as HotdogToGo543.