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The scariest thing about sitting down to write a column, especially in the Internet age, is that you risk putting your ignorance on display to the entire world, forever.
It used to be if you made an error or there was an “editing mistake,” you might get a comment or two, perhaps a letter. You could then issue a retraction or correction (“sorry I misspoke”) and pretty much figure that had taken care of it.
But today, every word you write in a blog, article, column or even comment gets “cached” in cyberspace and can remain accessible ad infinitum — and searchable by your name — despite all efforts to erase it.
And what about expressing opinions that, upon further reflection, you realize were somewhat half-baked. (I’m speaking theoretically here.) Those, too, will always resurface, at an inopportune time no doubt, even when your thinking has matured.
You’d think (well, I’d think) these consequences of Internet search engines would make people more reluctant to say the first thing that came into their minds, that perhaps they might lead to a more reflective type of discourse in the public arena.
After all, being told to “think before your speak” meant one thing when we were sitting in our elementary school classrooms, but quite another when our words may immediately be broadcast worldwide.
On the contrary, however, many people today appear to lose most of their inhibitions when writing online. To them, it’s liberating to see their words immediately and indelibly expressed in print with the click of an “enter” button.
Of course, I’m omitting a crucial qualification here. Most Internet comments are submitted pseudonymously, or at least using a truncated name that cannot easily be traced back to the author.  
The ability to hide one’s identity online is, indeed, one of the signature features of the Internet. This privacy is what makes the medium so useful to people — for both positive and prurient purposes. And the threats allegedly posed to this privacy by some features of the latest technology, including that of Google and Facebook, have caused a storm of criticism online and elsewhere.
On the other hand, the ability to comment while remaining out of sight isn’t really a new development. Book authors and columnists have used pseudonyms for hundreds of years.
But when push comes to shove, people can usually ferret out a person’s true (or should I say, primary) colors in the publishing world. This appears to be more difficult online, though digital sleuths do have their ways.
So would people step back and be more circumspect (or at least less vicious) if they were required to write in their own names at all times? Would writers be more careful to check their facts and think through their arguments? Would we be able to have more faith in online product reviews if we could tell whether a PR hack wrote them?
I think it’s clear all of these would be true. But I also think we’re unlikely to see the day when all Internet postings are clearly identifiable.
While sites like Facebook tell users they are required to use their “real name,” and the fine print on many sites says you must at least register in your real name before being able to comment, there are still plenty of opportunities to hide one’s identity online.
And for all practical purposes, the fact that a site’s owner has access to your real name doesn’t make your otherwise anonymous comments identifiable without a court order.
At least there is one good thing about the fact that people so often hide behind pseudonyms when they write the most outrageous things. It means they do still have a sense of shame.
When people choose to use their real names in rants, we’ll know the barbarians truly are at the gates.