Still, Mr. Holt scored a minor triumph for the often-castigated political class. “I think more of Congress just hearing about it,” said Tom M. Mitchell, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and an artificial intelligence expert.
And yet anonymous comments — all of them, even the written equivalent of high-speed drive-by shootings — serve a useful function. They show us what the species is really like: the full spectrum of human behavior, not just the part that we find reassuring and enlightening.
It’s impossible for anyone who reads unmoderated comments threads on large websites to argue that racism, sexism or anti-Semitism are no longer problems in America, or that the educational system is not as bad as people say or that deep down most people are good at heart. Unmoderated comments threads are X-rays of the reptilian brain — indicators of the dark stuff that rattles around in the id and that would get blurted out in the home or workplace routinely if the superego didn’t intervene. Mel Gibson’s rants are no more ugly than sentiments that get expressed thousands of times a day all over the Internet.
When a person comments anonymously, we’re told, they’re putting a mask on. But the more time I spend online the more I’m convinced that this analogy gets it backward.
The self that we show in anonymous comments, the fantasy self, the self we see in the mirror when we fantasize about being tough and strong and feared, the face we would present to the world if there were no such thing as consequences: That’s the real us.
The civil self is the mask.
BY MATT ZOLLER SEITZ