Intellectuals for centuries have campaigned against censorship. From Ben Franklin to John F. Kennedy to Justice Earl Warren, the argument has been much the same: Censorship is antithetical to democracy. More recently, megastar Jay-Z reiterated the point in his 2011 book, Decoded, writing simply that “we change people through conversation, not through censorship.”
It’s pretty hard to argue with Jay-Z — let alone Franklin, Kennedy and Warren. But I find myself, uncomfortably, thinking more favorably about the concept of censorship as we in Silicon Valley grapple with the emergence of several social networks built around the concept of anonymity. Companies like Whisper and Secret, among several other lesser-knowns, have attracted outsized attention and funding as the next generation of social media platforms. While each has its own unique features, they all allow users to send messages to groups without names attached.
Let me first say that anonymity can be a very good thing. Having the ability to speak freely without fear of repercussions can spark honest discussion about important, delicate or emotionally charged topics. Just being able to share feelings and fears within a supportive network can be a productive mental health exercise and even connect people in meaningful and fun ways. Upstart Secret, for one, has shown strong success in the quality of discourse on its mobile app. It isn’t perfect. I mean, some of it is silly and some of it is a little mean and petty. But overall, it’s much better than I expected. In general, the content is about real emotions, real fears, real aspirations and real desires.
Part of the genuine nature of the conversations on Secret stems from the fact that users are only sharing their personal reflections with people somehow relevant to them, as they come from their personal networks (via phone contacts). Secret is more like going to a masquerade ball with your friends versus being in a completely dark room with a bunch of strangers. You sign on to Secret with a verified identity and then can exchange messages anonymously with other people to whom you are digitally connected to, and who are also on Secret. This is an important distinction and works because the lack of total anonymity on Secret forces users to refrain from sending truly offensive messages they may otherwise send if they were among strangers. Deep down you worry that people might be able to figure out who you are.
I think of Secret as qualified anonymity, and this aspect of a company’s network is hugely important in establishing both credibility and value — and why startups like Secret have a shot at real success. But it is not enough by itself.
Here comes the tough part. As abhorrent as the concept of censorship is to many people who embrace the ideals of anonymity, including me, we need censorship to keep the dimly lit corners of cyberspace safe. It is just too tempting for people under the protection of anonymity to devolve into irresponsible and immoral behavior.
We have all seen how damaging it can be to offer an unbridled platform for the worst kind of human impulses, particularly for teens. Prejudice, bigotry and sheer meanness can easily proliferate, transforming a winning concept into little more than a digital bathroom wall.
That is why any platform leveraging anonymity will have to have some group of moderators that delete inappropriate and dangerous posts in real time — and then banish those posters from the site forever. To be clear, I am only in favor of striking comments that are truly hateful or dangerous. Unpopular or controversial viewpoints that are part of honest discourse should be allowed to flow freely.
Whisper, for one, has already hired dozens of employees whose sole job is to constantly monitor the site for inappropriate content. These are important actions because they ensure consequences for behaviors that deliberately cause harm. To purists, it may inhibit free speech, but to me it’s no different than why we prohibit people from yelling fire in a movie theater when one doesn’t exist.
Neither Franklin nor Jay-Z may like it. But I believe this is the only way these anonymous platforms can survive and thrive. Otherwise they will turn into walls in a New York subway station. And we all know how that will go.
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