Online comments and the death of civil discourse

Posted on 27 Jan 2011 at 5:01pm

When you can spout off anonymously and don’t have to talk face to face, it becomes too easy to attack one another

DAVID WEBB  |  Special Contributor

I sometimes wonder if the blogosphere was designed for a class of people that enjoys animal fights over a good movie or a football game. That’s what the blogs of practically all publications often resemble today — a dogfight between readers and journalists, readers and readers, and even journalists and journalists.

There’s something about the ability to instantly lash out at another person without having to look them in the eye that generates written warfare on blogs’ comments sections. The added benefit of being able to exchange written blows without the writers providing full names or even first names seems to make going to battle even more inviting.

The blog spectacles draw crowds of invisible observers sitting in front of their monitors watching the warriors and cheering them on to more aggression. Occasionally, the observers get so caught up in the action that they even get drawn into it.

It’s turned out to be a highly contagious atmosphere, and journalists themselves have become infected with some of the more severe cases of what I’m calling blogoitis.

One of the more spectacular blog slugouts in Dallas occurred about four years ago between two high-profile columnists from competing publications.

The gentlemen, both of whom I’m acquainted with in a casual sort of way, let loose on each other like it was World War III — and the plan was for no one to be left standing.

The funny part about it was that both writers are pretty laid back individuals that in person seem incapable of such hostility.

And on Dallas Voice’s blog, Instant Tea, there have been countless battles waged between all of the parties I mentioned above. I admit to succumbing to it myself in more than one category.

Given that no one is actually getting physically bludgeoned, it might seem almost harmless — if it were not for the resulting complications. It’s one of the laws of the universe: According to one of Newton’s laws of physics, “Every action is accompanied by a reaction of equal magnitude but opposite direction.”

In that regard, I think we’re probably seeing a chilling effect arising. I’ve had journalists and readers tell me the experience of a blog fight had left them feeling bad for several days. If a journalist or a reader knows that their words will result in an immediate, symbolic public stoning, it could easily lead anyone to keep their opinions to themselves.

Since the relevantly recent birth of the Internet’s blogosphere, the phenomena of cyber-bullying has also developed. One example of it is the presence of activist groups that maintain e-mail lists for the purpose of launching campaigns to flood blogs with complaints anytime something is written that they don’t like.

I’ve had a few unpleasant, unforgettable experiences with that.

I wrote a column last year that a group of activists didn’t like. One of the members of the group admitted to me that he had heard about the column over dinner one night and immediately launched an e-mail campaign against me without even reading the column. He told me about it because after looking at my blog and seeing how supportive I had been of his group over the years, he actually read the column and then decided to call off the dogs.

Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. It appeared that most of the people who sent complaining e-mails also hadn’t read my column. In fact, they so distorted what I had written, that even I was becoming unsure of what I had actually said.

In any event, criticism does come with the territory for anyone who steps into the public domain, so none of this is meant to imply that criticism and debate shouldn’t take place.

But it does seem like everyone, myself included, should think about what they are writing before posting a comment on a blog — and then strive to be respectful. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to write something that is unfair and could be regretted later.

David Webb is a former staff writer for the Dallas Voice. E-mail him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 28.

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