If it cost 5 cents to post a comment on the internet, would you still do it? Would it cause you to post less often, and in fewer places? Think about that while you read on; we’ll come back round to it later.
The internet is a society unto itself. Like any society, it requires rules to function productively. But because of its decentralised nature, very few rules are effectively enforced. Freedom of expression, for instance, tends to go unchecked, serving as a cheap defense for those who want to put down others without suffering the consequences. But freedom of expression is not freedom from consequence: if I barge into your house and start hurling abuse at you, you have every right to kick me out and call the police.
Accountability on the internet doesn’t work that way, though. Anonymity prevents punishment on both technical and social levels. Names are screen names, and perpetrators have an endless supply of disguises to facilitate their depravity. And as truisms like Godwin’s Law prove, the unsavory element can pollute even the most innocent of discussions.
So what measures could be taken to limit the vitriol so rampant on the internet? Let’s return to the notion of paying to post comments. Now, 5 cents isn’t a lot, but it represents a massive cognitive shift from the way we think when things are free. By assigning a price – even one so minimal – to the act of expression, it becomes a transaction. Our minds approach transactions with an expectation of profit: we want to get back more than we give, in terms of economic utility. If we’re paying to engage in online discourse, the conversation better be stimulating.
Faced with an explicit value proposition, commenters would have to make an intellectual commitment rather than just an emotional one. The heat of the moment cools significantly when money gets involved. It’s why free-to-play games do magnitudes better than even 99c games. We don’t think of downloading a free-to-play game as a transaction, so we’re more susceptible to emotional persuasion. On the flip side, we tend to equate price with quality, perceiving 99c apps as higher quality than free-to-play. This attitude translates to online discourse: if comments came with price tags, we would assign them greater value than gratis commentary, whether we realized it or not. Consequently, the discourse as a whole would be elevated to a higher standard.
In practical terms, paywalling comments runs into a lot of problems. An economic obstacle discriminates against the poor and allows the rich to establish a monopoly. Furthermore, serial pests might consider the cost worthwhile for the satisfaction they reap from attacking others. But the core concept is sound. Encourage people to be frugal with their commentary, and it will hew to a higher standard. Those that continue to troll and harass will have to pay for the chance, and ignoring them will become an indirect punishment, a passive protest with tangible effect. Voting with our wallet becomes a tool for discourse as well as commerce.
Internet commentary needs to be improved. Just as drunken conversations lose coherence as you sober up, online discourse devolves into degeneracy in the absence of self-awareness. A paywall might not be the right answer, but it’s one worth thinking about.