Since Caller ID went mainstream in the mid-'90s, you might be hard-pressed to recall the last time you got a call provoking you to check if, indeed, your refrigerator was running. Likewise, heavy breathing on the other end of the line now usually indicates the caller is out of shape, not a pervert. That's because the question "who's calling?" is answered before the call itself.
If our pre-Caller ID days taught us anything, it's that anonymity protects bad behavior. When it concerns online activity, anonymity provides bad behavior with food and shelter, rocks it back and forth and sings it lullabies. That's why newspaper websites have taken steps to eliminate both. The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently joined the effort, requiring commenters to post feedback through a Facebook account.
A notice saying as much greeted readers at lvrj.com last week. Talk about a troll tirade.
It's an outrage! A violation of their rights! A total shame! And, did they mention it's an outrage?!
I can't tell you how many times I had the same sentiments. But I'll try.
There was the time I wrote a column about my favorite teacher and a commenter claimed I "ripped off" a New York Times columnist, who had written about his favorite teacher the day before. Never mind that it was the start of a new school year, my deadline was a week prior, and everyone who attended school probably had a favorite teacher. The commenter still felt inclined to loosely accuse me of plagiarism.
That comment still lives at the bottom of that column, like a squatter with no shame and no justification for being there.
A couple of years before that, I wrote a feature story about young men who slept out for a premium sneaker launch. That these kids would spend the night, and hundreds of dollars, for a pair of kicks designed by Kanye West disgusted commenters. Naturally, they blamed President Barack Obama.
If you're trying to connect the dots, don't. Anonymous online commenters treat the point of a story like the big, red bouncy thing in a game of dodgeball.
The real charmers emerged when I wrote a piece about how to pronounce fashion designers' names. I used it as an opportunity to tell readers how to say my own name (Haws-meen). Somehow a commenter translated that to mean I was mad that I was born Mexican. I think what he meant to write was that he was mad I was born Mexican.
Those were feature stories that didn't feel the glow of the home page spotlight. High-profile news stories get the ignorance and racism in bulk.
About two weeks ago, the Review-Journal ran a story on the home page about a Las Vegas police officer who shot a K-9 dog after it bit his partner while they pursued a black suspect. One commenter had this to offer: "Too bad the cop didn't shoot the black guy instead." And that's a tame example, one that snuck past the filters.
It reminds me of another group of people who operated under another cloak of anonymity in the '50s and '60s - a white, hooded cloak of anonymity.
Bigotry thrives under masks. Ignorance goes viral.
The seething circus that some of these comments sections have turned into leaves no room for healthy debate. An intelligent discussion popping up is as likely as a Harvard professor accepting an invitation to "The Jerry Springer Show."
That's not to say posting comments through Facebook strips the masks off the cowards, ridding us of toxic comments for good. Users can just as easily create fake accounts. Some already have. One was thoughtful enough to use the name of a man gunned down and killed by Las Vegas police in a highly publicized and controversial case. The accompanying photo equally offended. Call it creative cruelty.
Judging from the protests commenters left before the Facebook requirement went into effect, there's a perception that readers have a right to these online comments. Before newspapers went online, there was a common understanding that readers had the right to send a letter to the editor. And, after first confirming the identity of the letter's author, newspapers still had the right to refuse its publication. Freedom of speech, no matter how you spun it, never meant a reader with an opinion should be a reader with newspaper ink.
The idea that because a thought formulates online means it's ordained to be published online is not the function of a newspaper website. That's called a blog. Bigoted, cruel commenters should get one and unleash their hate there. They can use this column for fodder.
Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.