I’m tempted to say “I miss the good old days before social media when reasonable people could have intelligent discussions online about music, sports, cinema and politics” BUT… when I really think about what newsgroups and bulletin boards and chatrooms were like twenty plus years ago they were no different. In some situations they were actually worse.

For those of you who weren’t around online back in the early 1990’s days, the level of anonymity on the internet was at an all time high. Very few places required you to proof of your name or identity, but of course there was also very little need for online security either. Amazon.com wasn’t even founded until 1994, and eBay didn’t launch until 1995. Social media hubs we now take for granted didn’t even come along until a decade later – Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. For a long time online everything was done via text, and even when the web was launched it only became a graphic rich environment very slowly and gradually.

In those wild and free internet days you were just a name and an e-mail address, sometimes both, sometimes one or the other – on occasion neither. If you needed an e-mail address to join a bulletin board, there were plenty of services that you could get one from for free or a small fee. The internet was to me an obvious extension of hip-hop music and culture – everybody operated under a pseudonym of their own choosing. Nobody ever had to claim authorship of an ad hominem attack unless they really wanted to, which is how terms like “flame wars” and “trolling” became part of our lexicon long before “cyber-bullying” became a hot button topic in mainstream America.

Social media has only made it marginally harder to be anonymous and say incredibly vile things – you just need a temporary e-mail you can abandon once you get too much heat. Gmail has made the process of acquiring a handle to operate under easier than ever. For some people this is a license to act badly. For others the anonymity that operating under a pseudonym offers protects them from things they don’t want to deal with – an abusive spouse, a stalker, et cetera. There are perfectly good reasons to be anonymous online and this editorial is not meant to suggest that that kind of privacy needs to be curtailed in any way.

It is however worth noting that many of the forums who have suggested they will “clean up” their comments sections by requiring users to have a real name, or link it to a real Facebook profile, or some other form of verification have achieved the exact opposite effect. I’ve seen it happen in the YouTube comments section hundreds of times – supposedly “verified” users are names that obviously parody celebrities, with pictures obviously taken from Wikipedia, with comments that are obviously meant to irritate or anger anybody who’s reading them. If the comment is flagged enough times it disappears. If the user is reported enough times THEY disappear. It changes nothing – there are more people creating fake “real” Google profiles than there are cybercops on the beat to question their authenticity.

The first amendment does us all a great service by protecting our right to say what we want without fear of reprisal or government interference, which means that it also protects speech that some people find unpleasant. This has always benefited artists of all kind, and in particular it benefits hip-hop, since there’s no shortage of unpleasant injustice and uncomfortable social problems that need to be discussed – often in the most profane words possible. The messages can not always be gotten across with kindness and a soft spoken dialogue. If you want to create heaven you may need to raise a little hell first. That’s fine for art, that’s fine for music, that’s fine for print and video and yes that’s even fine for social media too… except that unlimited freedom also gives us the power to be unlimited assholes.

The next time you find yourself disagreeing with somebody over their choice of words, their beliefs or their religious ideologies, is it really necessary to go all BoJack Horseman and respond with “Suck a d#%! dips#%&” to it? It might be funny. It might even get you a thumbs up or a retweet. It also lowers our collective ability to get to know each other and learn more about the differences that make us all interesting. People that create false identities just to say things they know are upsetting and laugh at the responses that come in clearly don’t want to create a connection with others. For the rest of the world, the rapid response time of the internet is a curse. There’s virtually no lag time between thinking of an angry response and typing or texting it. Social media was supposed to make us all more civil to each other by putting names and faces to online identities. You wouldn’t talk like that to somebody next door to you, in the next aisle from you, in the next seat across from you, a friend or a family member right? But we all do it. We somehow disconnect ourselves from our online profiles as though they’re not who we really are. As much as I enjoy taking part in social media I often regret the increased amount of incivility and hostility that comes with it.