In the past several months I've been collecting different politically oriented comment threads from Facebook as well as online editions of various daily newspapers. I've also spent too much time looking at comments left under YouTube videos about California's Proposition 8 vote and its aftermath. Why would I subject myself to this? Simple: research.
The volume of political discourse on the Internet is, practically speaking, immeasurable. From the New York Times to the smallest blog, comment functions and active threads are everywhere. Often absent, however, is a solid showing of civility. That said, I couldn't help but notice that one area that appeared noticeably more civil in tone and decorum was the threads collected from Facebook. The reason appears to be a simple one: You can't be anonymous on Facebook. Even if one person in the comment thread doesn't know many of the others, they all know the host... the person whose Facebook page holds the thread.
I look at it like a cocktail party. Not every guest at the party knows every other guest. Some may not even know the host, if they are guests of guests. But out of respect for the host, it will take some real provoking or pre-existing animosity for one guest to get into a shouting match with another that leads to shouting, f-bombs and maybe a punch or two. It happens, but not often. Facebook is a cocktail party. People, even if they don't all know one another, play nice.
Too be sure, there are people who are just tools, and they too are on Facebook, behaving badly in the cyber salons of others.. (Talkin' to you, guy whose name spells a lot like Savid Dims.) But, like at a cocktail party, what would a nice party be without at least one guy who presents himself as an conversational jerk without really even trying.
Unmoderated comment threads on news sites are a lot more like being at an NHL game. A person knows few or no others in the arena, yet can usually tell who is one his side. (The jerseys help. Hockey fans love jerseys. I have five myself... three Blackhawks and two Badgers. I digress.) People will scream obscenities at the top of their lungs, hurl insults at the opposing team's fans, and occasionally instigate or otherwise participate in a brawl. The relative anonymity of a raucous crowd gives cover for being an ass
The majority of comments on any controversial subject of your choosing in, for example, the Chicago Tribune are anonymous. It's so easy to call people crude names, ridicule others' points when you have none to make yourself, and generally act like an uneducated belligerent jerk. As long as people are not required to provide their identity, that's not going to change. And if that doesn't change, one can never really take seriously much about those comments or enter into any productive and informative discourse.
That said, it is nice to know that people who used to have to just yell at their television sets when not muttering to themselves now have a more interactive outlet for their insightful commentary. And they do give people like me something to work with when researching computer-mediated discourse... and the rest of you someone to laugh at.