Basketball, Sexuality, and Anonymity in a Digital World

After the news of Jason Collins’s sexual orientation hit the press yesterday, an enormous amount of commentary, both anonymous and not, emerged on the digital sphere. While most of these comments were positive, gathering support from notables including Kobe Bryant and President Obama, some was not. This is harped on well in the New York Times article, “Inside N.B.A. and Out, Words of Support (Mostly) for Collins’s Revelation”. In which, authors Ben Hoffman and Christine Haughney, discuss how there were some who actually expressed strong discontentment with the news and homosexuality as a whole. What is important to note about these though, is that for the most part the negative comments were anonymous.

Even though they cite the example of Mike Wallace, a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins who tweeted in a somewhat peevish tone about the matter, it is also noted that he attempted to retract and delete his negative statements within hours. Jason-Collins-is-gay.-Image-via-@SInowBecause he was likely bombarded with disapproving criticism after his initial statements of intolerance, he was inevitably swayed to delete them and issue an apology. In short, this is testament to the argument against cyber anonymity. While theorists like Nancy Baym, Dannah Boyd, and Rebecca MacKinnon – argue that lack of identity online allows people to speak more honestly and that anonymity is crucial for political activism/sustained democracy – they are strongly counteracted by a plethora of examples of users rather wielding anonymity as a shield in order to convey hateful messages, messages that would otherwise have gone unsaid if a name were attached. Besides from the overabundance of anonymous hate comments towards Jason Collins at the bottom of articles about his outing, another good example of this is on the People of Wal-Mart website. Lisa Woolfork, a UVA professor and expert on the subject, illustrated how these simple images can generate hundreds of distasteful comments that are only being said under the pretenses of remaining unknown. This reality of anonymity masking hate speech has been one of the driving forces in Zuckerberg’s goal of adding accountability to the online world through facebook. In his letter to the investors he makes brief mention of his goal to rid the web of unnecessary anonymity that can provoke trolling and abuse. This is exemplified in sites that now require readers to connect with facebook before a comment can be made.

While these scholars present the two opposing sides of Internet anonymity, it is important to recognize the validity of both while moving forward. Certainly as the aforementioned female scholars have noted – anonymity is crucial towards revealing true sentiments and engaging politically. But at the same time this same anonymity can often be abused for distasteful expression. Perhaps a proper solution would promote anonymity coupled with a form of monitoring – either laterally or hierarchically – but that is a debate for another time.

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