Why I no longer read anonymous comments

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I wrote for the Times Higher last week.

I have stopped reading anonymous comments by students on my module evaluation surveys. Unless I’m forced to, I won’t read them again. I understand the argument for anonymity. Anonymous feedback, delivered without polite hedging or fear of censure, can provide those in privileged roles with salutary information they might not hear face-to-face. But anonymity also has costs, and I no longer believe the benefits outweigh them.

I have never posted anonymous feedback in my life. When I fill in staff surveys, which isn’t often, I put my name at the bottom of any free-text comments I make. Perhaps this is vanity: why waste time on words that don’t have my name on them? But at least it means that I take responsibility for them – the credit and the blame. By affixing my name to my words, I am incentivized to care that they say precisely what I want them to say.

Our online lives have normalized anonymity. In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010), the technology writer Jaron Lanier argues that anonymity is now a congealed philosophy, an “immovable eternal architecture” built into the software. Participants in the early world wide web were extrovert and collegiate in their online identities. Web 2.0, with its shift to user-generated content, encouraged the use of pseudonyms and avatars as part of the crowdsourcing of information. What mattered in this new world were not the individuals who made it up, but the endless, collective generation of data, which could be exploited for advertising, surveillance and other purposes.

We have got used to providing free content online, by posting below-the-line comments, leaving feedback or updating our social media feeds. Even when we do put our names to this writing, our names aren’t that important. The writer is merely a content provider, a tiny part of the vast computational machine and its insatiable appetite for harvestable data.

For Lanier, this new culture has led to a “drive-by anonymity”. It empowers trolls, rewards snark and makes for “a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world”. Distanced from others by the technology, we are more likely to forget that we are addressing complex, harassed, bruisable humans like ourselves.

Academics are at the luckier end of this problem. In some service industries, anonymous feedback can affect people’s pay and even their employment. If an Uber driver gets too many poor ratings, they are frozen out of the app that brings them new customers. In academia, poor feedback doesn’t usually have these drastic career consequences. We are also lucky that only a tiny number of students set out to be cruel or unkind. Such comments do get posted, though, and there is now a large body of research suggesting that negative feedback is aimed disproportionately at young, women and BAME lecturers.

Anonymous feedback has a more insidious aspect: it skews the whole nature of writing as communication between human beings. It is more likely to be dashed off and dispensed casually, probably in the middle of many other invitations to give feedback. It means far more to the reader than it does to the writer – which is the wrong way round.

One of Lanier’s suggestions for improving online culture is to post something that took you a hundred times longer than it will take to read. This usefully shifts a piece of writing’s centre of gravity. The producer of the words has more invested than the consumer. Those words have a better chance of saying something interesting and worthwhile.

Our culture’s appetite for computable information makes nuanced communication more difficult. “Writing has never been capitalism’s thing,” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972). Capitalism, they write, prefers “electric language” – words that can be processed, actioned and monetized. But words are not just containers for data. They possess an immense power to move, hurt, deceive, anger, enchant and cajole others.

Most of our students grew up with Web 2.0 and know no other reality. They are at ease with anonymity. But as an English lecturer, I am struck by how much this conflicts with what we try to teach them about good writing. We tell them that putting words into careful, considered order is hard, that they must keep rewriting until they sound like the best and most insightful version of themselves. We teach them that words cut through most deeply when they have a sense of voice and address, of being written by an irreducibly unique person to other irreducibly unique people.

We have learned during the pandemic that teaching does not thrive as a series of faceless interactions. Just as Zoom seminars are easier and more enriching to teach when students have their cameras on, I would much rather receive feedback from specific, identifiable people. I know this kind of feedback would be as flawed as all human communication – prone to misunderstandings, self-censorship and power imbalances. We would need to work hard to create a space in which students felt able to speak freely. And students would also need to spend time framing their comments with the right mix of directness and tact – but wouldn’t that be a good skill for them to learn? For all its difficulties, feedback with someone’s name on it still feels preferable to the asymmetry of anonymity, so subtly alienating for both writer and reader. That is why I no longer read anonymous comments.

One thought on “Why I no longer read anonymous comments

  1. “Writing has never been capitalism’s thing,” sounds good but makes no sense surely? Capitalism’s realm is neither that deep nor that wide. Are you just being an old ‘leftie academic’?
    Why don’t your students ‘group moderate’? They could do it all anonymously. Everyone would have to agree to comments before they were posted. That would put manners on them.
    Paula Smith (Hackney)

    Like

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