It's no surprise to anyone at this point that the Internet seethes with examples of people behaving badly. Psychologists even have a name for it: the online disinhibition effect, the result of a medium that encourages speed over reflection, and frequently goes hand-in-hand with anonymity and a lack of real consequences for bad behaviour.
But rude commenters are not just YouTube's purview any more. Last week, while browsing my colleagues' writing online in this paper, I stumbled across comments that a sixth grader might find a bit juvenile, including insults directed at the writer's mother.
Two questions popped into my head immediately. One: Is this really what, underneath it all, people are like? And two: Does that somehow justify publishing it?
It's not just me. We seem to have collectively reached the limits of our tolerance for flame wars and sub-par wisecracks. Where once free speech in comment sections was the rule, it may soon be the exception: Two weeks ago, the Regina Leader-Post switched to a more heavily moderated model of commenting. The New York Times and Washington Post both recently did the same.
Detractors rail about the death of democracy. I understand the argument: Anonymous forums allow people to voice their feelings more freely than the classroom or the water cooler. Few people will take a stand on a divisive, complicated issue like abortion or pornography if they think their social standing will be marred as a result.
But, after the thrill of the implications of uncensored comments wear off (It will enable Erin Brockovich-like corporate takedowns! It will expose corruption in high places! ...Wait, isn't that what media outlets are for?), it becomes clear that, most of the time, a lack of censorship results in an absurd decline in discourse.
When readers write print letters to magazines or newspapers, they are generally curated and edited before publication. Why should online posts be any different? If anything, moderation there is more crucial - last month, website Retrevo published the results of a survey on "poster's remorse" that found that one-third of respondents had posted something too hastily and regretted it - to say nothing of the comments that people should regret but aren't self-aware enough to.
Just as a slob can live in a clean or a dirty house while a tidy person will avoid a mess, a comment section that has a few mean-spirited or - let's be frank - stupid posts will not attract many people who want to hang around and clean the place up. The broader the readership, the higher the chances of that old online disinhibition rearing its head. All it takes is one "yo momma" comment and the level of discourse drops with a thud, and stays there.
It's not just the tone of comments sections that suffers. Writers stop reading feedback, eroding a valuable connection to their readership. Worse, potential subjects become reluctant to be interviewed, knowing the jackals are waiting for the kill. "Reporters say increasing numbers are expressing regret they co-operated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks," Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander recently wrote.
Some have suggested the solution lies in requiring people to identify themselves. But, online, no one can prove they are who they claim to be. A determined troll can repeatedly generate new names and e-mail addresses. Also, anonymity can be useful for legitimate whistle-blowers.
Fortunately, it seems to be dawning on people that democracy doesn't solely mean that everyone gets a say. It also means that the public has a say in your say. Many comment-moderating systems are beginning to let readers vote comments up or down, with low-scoring posts sinking to the bottom of the pile, out of immediate sight. Popular website Gawker has a two-tiered system that rewards what they and their readership consider quality commenters: Posts from people in the second tier are hidden but available to any reader.
In the end, all the fuss about protecting free speech is a bit overblown. There's nothing stopping anyone from starting a blog dedicated to their specific brand of vitriol. Of course, if you're reading this online, the space below is the perfect place to prove me wrong. Or right, as the case may be.
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