I remember the first time I bought a gay magazine. It was 1984 and I was living in Columbia, Missouri, going to college. There was a ” head shop” in downtown Columbia that carried The Advocate along with High Times and incense. Reading a gay magazine or newspaper was something done anonymously, something you didn’t want other people to notice. This morning, I read The Advocate in my dentist’s office since it was provided in the office magazine rack. How times have changed.
So a note from The Advocate’s editor, Matthew Breen, that the magazine was going to implement Facebook Connect as the commenting tool on some of its stories reminded me of how LGBT people being open and out of the closet has really changed everything. Here’s Breen’s comment about the change as it related to anonymity and the closet.
Web anonymity can foster brutality, and this brand of negative commenting can be a disheartening and off-putting experience for well-meaning users, even those who disagree with one another and are poised for a lively debate. Facebook Comments offers a solution there, as your name and profile image will appear next to your comment. The general consensus is this is a troll killer.
Doubtlessly this will raise questions about the anonymity that many of our readers felt was necessary in the past. We’ve had a robust discussion internally about potential losses in interactivity if readers can no longer post comments anonymously. Were those readers closeted? Were they fearful of the online equivalent of getting our magazine in the mail without the opaque wrapper — of having the postal carrier see your gay magazine? Will readers go to other web publications if they cannot comment without being identified?
But I invariably come down on the side of openness. I firmly believe that being out — as an LGBT person, or as an equal rights supporter — is a fundamentally positive thing. Being out is the most important thing we can do for ourselves and for future generations of LGBT people. So we’re doing our part to dispense with the Internet closet. Additionally, I have no desire to make this site a venue for hate speech.
Breen isn’t the only one pondering the ugliness of comment boxes and the issue of anonymity.
Joe Jervis at JoeMyGod recently asked people on his Facebook page about the idea of using “Facebook only” as the commenting tool for the well-trafficked comment section. While the opinion was fairly mixed, the interesting thing was concerned more about general 2011 privacy concerns and not necessarily concerns about being “closeted.” There was a sense that it would make people more responsible for what is said.
That’s not to suggest that eliminating anonymity solves all the commenting problems. Bil Browning at Bilerico Project, which uses Facebook as one of the ways to comment, has also been lamenting the problems with online discourse in comment sections at his site.
But the question of anonymity in LGBT media comment sections has a larger meta-layer. Before the Internet, LGBT news magazines were often delivered in wrapping so that the mailman (and the folks who leaf through your mail) didn’t know you were getting a gay magazine. The Internet allows people to read in much greater anonymity and without concerns about the mailman. But is that anonymity essential?
Has the end of the closet for many LGBT media consumers meant the end of the need to be anonymous? Is the willingness to have your comments posted on your Facebook page (and have your Facebook identity attached to your comments) a sign that the closet is largely disappearing, especially for the Facebook generation? And what happens to people who are still closeted or just coming out; will they be shut out the experience by eliminating anonymity?
How times have changed.