Let us go forth and be positive, fellow Internet users

As the person responsible for handling online content here at this newspaper, it’s become clearer and clearer how much of a double-edged sword the comments section can be. On one hand, if one does not allow the readers a voice, they cease to be part of the conversation, and you are telling stories in a vacuum. On the other hand, the comments section very, very, very often devolves into the lowest possible form of human discourse. If there is any confusion with regards to the latter, feel free to visit any comment thread that has ever existed.

There is so much vitriol out there that many popular news and entertainment sites have disallowed comments. We’ve come quite a long ways from what Thomas Edison envisioned when he created comment threads—that people could read something online and respond, “I enjoyed this because …” or “I disagree with this because {rational thought}.” I doubt he foresaw CAPS LOCK and the ability to produce a sexually explicit emoticon.

We will not forgo comments on our websites, although part of my job is to approve or disapprove of comments before they appear on the sites. My decision is based on one question: Is this hateful/racist/profane/generally offensive or just pointless and dumb? If the latter, there’s not much I can do except approve. You think the new marijuana dispensary is “bout to be crunk wit dat skunk?” Well congratulations, your opinion on the matter has been published.

In fact, one I recently approved was a comment on one of my own columns. The first line was, “No offense, but you are a moron.” The ensuing explanation as to why I am a moron seemed to miss the point of that particular column, although I have certainly admitted as much in many other columns, so no offense was taken. I did, however, respond how I normally do when confronted with what I deem to be unwarranted criticism—with snark and sarcasm.

Which got me thinking. It’s easier for me and for many of us to elevate ourselves above the perceived stupidity of it all, perched high above on our pedestals of condescension. In that respect, it becomes apparent that online comments are not just hurtful in and of themselves, but in our reactions to them. It becomes more important that we flex our ego in the public sphere than advance the conversation, even if it’s one we deem unworthy of having.

It used to be thought that anonymity was what fueled online negativity, but there is plenty to go around on Facebook, Twitter, and among people with known online identities. I believe, as many do, that the face-to-face aspect lacking from these interactions gives people a distorted sense of freedom to say things they never would otherwise. One may think those interactions would be limited enough to not even mention, but after consideration, I realize the vast majority of my own interactions these days, for better or worse, involve me typing. That is where we are.

For that reason I think it’s important we try to raise the level of discourse here, regardless of—because of—however inferior we perceive that which we are confronted with. Either ignore or redirect to something genuinely positive. That’s my resolution this year. I’m not off to a great start, but there is time.

Note: This column appears in the 1/3 issue of The Glendale Star and the 1/4 issue of the Peoria Times.


tourist504 said…

Happy new year.
tourist504 said…

You know, I don't read the comments anymore. Most of them, like the "moron" comment you described, make no sense or have nothing to do with the article or take information in the article completely out of context, thus making them non-comments. Yet, these comments receive 42 replies.

I really do feel better about life in general since I started skipping the comments entirely (and talk radio - I do audiobooks instead). Although a little trolling in the sports-related articles of opposing teams' online local newspapers is super-fun and pretty harmless.
mkenny59 said…
Lolzing on the first comment. I LOVE when moronic comments receive endless replies and create their very own thread of pointlessness. I get lost in those sometimes (on other sites; I don't even get enough terrible comments here), and have to physically shake myself to make me realize what I'm reading and get out. Funny you should mention it, I am also trying to ween myself off sports talk radio, and agree that there is some virtue in trolling. You're one of the good ones, tourist ... you're one of the good ones.