Friday, April 08, 2011

Slam-dunked by the anonymous posters

A note to those who post anonymously on my blog - this column isn't about you. The people who post here have been very respectful in their comments, even when they hate everything about something I've written. Thanks for that. 

Once upon a time, people who felt strongly about something I wrote would send me little notes and cards in the mail that either thanked me or put me in my place.
Then email came along, and soon that was how I got all my feedback. Now, it’s mostly through on-line comments.
The era of handwritten notes was lovely. I think I still have a file folder of the kindest ones somewhere, saved for the bleak days. But the shift to email was nice for its sense of immediacy.
On-line comments, on the other hand - well, that’s a whole other matter.
I love the concept. There’s potential for great public conversations through on-line comments. In the early days of the technology, I envisaged a wealth of opinions posted by smart, thoughtful people sharing informed and diverse experiences.
Not quite. On-line comment sections have in fact turned out to be the place where people feel free to hide their identities while saying the most awful things. It’s a rare day that I can even summon the courage to read the ugly stuff that gets posted under some of my columns.
As an opinion writer, I get that I have to be able to “take it.” I support free speech, including the right to make vicious and ignorant comments anonymously. I’ve got the skin of a rhino after many years of reader cruelties. I can handle it.
But really, a little on-line civility wouldn’t kill us. I talked to a couple of candidates in the Victoria civic election who were stunned and even a little scared by the horrible comments made about them on-line  during the campaign. Unfortunately, such experiences are now just part of being in the public eye.
Who are these intemperate commentators? What do they get out of posting nasty, uninformed statements and not even attaching their names to them?
They must recognize their comment makes them look bad, because otherwise they wouldn’t hide behind anonymity. But if they know that what they’re saying is embarrassing enough that they don’t want their names on it, why would they post it in the first place?
I love it when readers genuinely engage with me. True, I like it best when they say nice things, but I also appreciate people who disagree with me in intelligent ways and challenge me to see an issue from another perspective.  
Sometimes my detractors and I will even have a series of respectful exchanges via email, at the end of which we usually understand each other’s positions more clearly or have politely agreed to disagree. But when the comments are nothing but mindless, anonymous bile, that’s not going to happen.
Web sites like the Times Colonist at least filter out the worst of it. If you really want to see ugly, check out YouTube, where moderation of so-called “trolls” is non-existent unless the person uploading the video chooses it at the outset.
Salon television writer Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an intriguing piece on the subject in the August 2010 edition of the on-line U.S. magazine, where he argued the societal benefits of uncensored comment on media sites.
“It shows us the American id in all its snaggletoothed, pustulent glory, with a transparency that didn’t exist before the Internet,” writes Seitz. “And in its rather twisted way, that’s a public service.”
Anonymous comments remind us that racism and sexism are alive and well, contends Seitz. That literacy skills are in decline. That it’s misguided to presume that “deep down, most people are good at heart.”
Yup, that pretty much sums up the experience for me, too. Nothing slaps the Pollyanna out of a columnist quicker than a browse through the on-line comments. I guess I owe the nameless cowards thanks for that.
Great event coming up April 30, when Coalition Connect for Families makes its debut at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.
 It’s a first for the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which has taken its highly successful Project Connect concept and turned it into a new service fair for low-income families. All kinds of items - diapers, grooming products, small toys - are needed for the hundreds of “family packs” organizers will hand out at the all-day event, which features haircuts, ID replacement, health care, a BBQ lunch and many other services and connections.
Want to donate or volunteer? Contact co-ordinator Mary Gidney at for more information, including a list of items needed for the packs. Donations can be dropped off April 14-16 at Burnside-Gorge Community Association.


Anonymous said...

I posted a comment, it showed, now it's gone ???

Norm Farrell said...

I share your opinion about the value of reasonable dialog and the uselessness of rude, uncivil rants. It is content and civility more than identification that matters in online comments. Many great writers have used pen names for a variety of reasons.

The worst of the ugly comment writers should be ignored and denied publication; anything else encourages the hate missives to continue. Mostly, they have little to say anyway.

On the other hand, intelligent dialog can be both valuable and meaningful. Probably the best example I read regularly is Roger Ebert's Journal, where individual articles collect hundreds of comments, sometimes thousands. Only worthwhile contributions are published but often many are absolute gems.

I wrote about one of my favorite Ebert pieces at the link below. It was The London Perambulator, a discourse on an imaginary walk through parts of London. Yet it is more. Much more. Ebert reminisces and muses about people and places, youth, innocence, literature, traditions and topography, mortality and immortality.

islandpapa said...

what is most humourous about blog comments are how often the commenter comments on a subject other than the subject of the blog especially the ghoulish ones...regardless i am addicted.