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Layton’s death reveals the good, the bad and the ugly online

The Internet has many faults, but it also has many virtues. When a respected public figure such as Jack Layton passes away, thousands of people flock to social networking sites to grieve together online.

On Monday morning, when I heard the news about the NDP leader losing his battle against cancer, I was inspired to see thousands of people bidding farewell to the man who brought his party to new heights. Twitter was flooded with thoughtful tweets and, hours after Mr. Layton's death, a Facebook page launched in his honour, drawing more than 100 thousand people from Canada and beyond.

Facebook user Alison Whipps sums up the overall sentiment of the RIP Jack page best when she writes, "We will forever be in debt to you for all the hard work you have done to show what kind of country we can be in the future." Minute-by-minute, supporters continued to leave comments and heartfelt messages to the politician's family. Some "fans" even created artwork, including this illustrated piece by pencil portrait artist Mylene Mercier.

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While web users certainly aren't shy about sharing their thoughts, it's Mr. Layton's words that are having the biggest impact online. Even after his death, he is working to make Canada a better place with the letter he left behind. His final paragraph continues to flood status updates and tweets. "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world." This truly is one of the few moments in my Internet lifetime that I've seen our country come together like this.

But even as we try to be loving, hopeful and optimistic, the ugly side of the web inevitably rears its head. One of the first indications of discord surfaced on Twitter when Calgary Sun's Dave Naylor suggested Mr. Layton was not in fact dead, just in need of "a good massage." He later removed the tweet and posted an apology.

Following in Mr. Naylor's footsteps was Christie Blatchford, who took her time to tick off her readers. By paragraph four of her 1000-word column, she attacked fellow journalists for fawning over Mr. Layton and applauded Prime Minister Stephen Harper as "one of a very few voices of reason to be found on the airwaves." Later, she belittles Mr. Layton's final letter, referring to phrases like "love is better than anger" as bumper-sticker slogans.

While Ms. Blatchford's attempts to soil this proud Canadian moment, it's clear that the online community will not stand for it. In her attempt to diminish the NDP leader's final words, it's become more apparent that she's fighting for little more than link bait, a tactic content providers use to attract attention and drive traffic, even if it means disparaging a highly respected political leader.

Of course, Mr. Layton would not want any of us to dwell on the very few people who are trying to destroy this moment. He would want us to focus on the positive things we see online, and in this case, the web's many virtues. A brief trip to Flickr will erase the Naylors and Blatchfords of our wired world. Just take a look at this image of Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square, with hundreds of messages etched in chalk on the ground and walls, a memorial fit for "the prime minister we never had."

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