Anonymity online has been the double edged sword of Internet expression since cloaked commentary was allowed on every piece of media, from the tech blogs to the established periodical empires. And sometimes, the established tech blog empires. One of those, Engadget, was so turned off by what their own community commenters were leaving behind that they... well, turned off the comments almost a year ago this February (only to bring them back). Joshua Topolsky, Editor in Chief of Engadget, went on to state that they have a grand number of readers "who are very trollish."
The gesture may have caused a ruckus but it didn't change much. Recently, Jeff Pearlmen, Sports Illustrated columnist, began a quest to track down his "online haters." Pearlman wrote a post on his blog about Jeff Bagwell and the Hall of Fame which was not well received by a reader who sent him offensive tweets. Later, the reader seemed to have conceded, claiming he got worked up in the anonymity of the Internet and offered a link to his honest thoughts. The link actually redirected Pearlmen to hardcore porn.
Usually, he'd ignore it when someone would write an absurdly offensive comment, or perhaps tricking him into viewing pornography, but he finally reached a breaking point. Pearlman responded, saying his young daughter was sitting next to him but the reader, Matt, blew him off. And thus began his quest. He was able to track Matt down and call him up. What he found was not an incorrigible, immature "troll," but an atoning, reverent human being.
"I was just trying to get a rise out of you," he said. "You're a known sports writer, and I thought it was cool. That's all. I never meant for it to reach this point."
The same was true for another one of Pearlman's "haters." Andy, a 23 year old aspiring writer, called Pearlman "a f---ing retard." He claimed that sports writers were only useful, or only wanted, to "rile up" sports fans; he disagreed with Pearlman's assessment of Bagwell but confessed he loves his writing.
"Am I proud? No. Not even a little. It's embarrassing. But the Internet got the best of me."
It may not be concrete proof that online trolls are not inhibited by the Internet, as if you needed any, but it sure is a stepping stone to the truth about anonymity online.
[Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer,] says, "I reply all the time... The general response is 'Gee, I didn't think anyone was paying attention.' People believe no one's listening; they think we're not people, they think there are these giant monoliths controlling thought. Then when they realize someone is listening, they rediscover their manners."