Compulsive Acts

A psychiatrist's tales of ritual and obsession.

YouTube takes away user anonymity

What would Mr. Hobbes say?

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.

One can draw a parallel between the state of nature that pushed Hobbes to his pessimism and the state of YouTube. The worst possible outcomes he feared have echoes in a medium he could not have imagined. More websites are coming to the Hobbesian conclusion that it may be essential to become a gated community where members are give up some rights in exchange for the privilege of peaceful membership. The Internet has proven utterly incapable of self-policing, and some external enforcer is needed if an online forum wants to maintain a minimum of civility among members. Other desperate approaches have been tried, too: A few years ago, eBay became so tired of putting out buyer-seller wars that it took away sellers' ability to leave negative feedback. Other sites have moved to a system whereby users can rate content but without the ability to elaborate (e.g., click 1 on a grid of 1 to 5, with no option to explain your dislike). While these measures don't target anonymity, they do limit free speech--something that can be seen as equally drastic but, in these cases, probably necessary for the Webmaster who wants to maintain a positive environment. Still, there is little doubt that doing away with YouTube anonymity will come at a cost: The Internet wouldn't be the Internet without our ability to remain anonymous, and as we gain in civility by being stripped of our virtual masks, we will likely lose in creative energy and innovation.

Dr. Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist and author based at Stanford University. His most recent book is Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.

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