I was asked by a Slate journalist to discuss the recent decision by YouTube to start asking commenters to reveal their real identities by registering their full names before they can post on the site. As John Herrman from Buzzfeed writes, “YouTube is a comment disaster on an unprecedented scale. All of the worst things that could be said have been said here.” While it may represent an extreme example of online incivility, YouTube is no different than other unmoderated online forums: Sooner or later, they all seem to descend into what I have likened to the “state of nature”, as defined by the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, human beings cannot live in peaceful cooperation. They will ruthlessly compete with one another; will provoke each other and fight out of fear; and will blindly seek “glory”, both for its own sake and its deterrent effects—so others think twice before challenging them. In this environment of universal insecurity, human cooperation is impossible, and all have reason to be afraid and mutually suspicious. In the mayhem that ensues, “nothing can be unjust,” and “the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have . . . no place.” For Hobbes, the only way to avert this doomsday scenario is for men to agree to a social contract where all individuals cede some of their natural rights to a powerful ruler in exchange for peace and stability. Harmony in the absence of such an authority is a chimeric notion incompatible with human instincts. The best we can hope for is peaceful coexistence under some form of external containment.