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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

October 13, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Why the Wild West Web must remain untamed

I got an email last week that made my day.

“While reading online comments on your column, I noticed that you post there yourself,” a reader named Mike began. “Sorry if I’m being a busybody, just would like the mental health of a fellow human to remain intact.”

You and me both, buddy.

Concern for your mental health is not something you hear a lot as an online commentator, but it’s definitely something you think about. I’d have a hard time doing what I do if I didn’t (a) accept that rude and even vicious reactions are part of the job and (b) get used to it.

But still. It’s hard to read raw, often anonymous comments on the open Web and not wonder how we managed to stray so far from that lesson Thumper learns in Bambi — “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

No wonder social media sites are so popular. For the most part, Thumper’s etiquette applies. Friends show support, everyone loves your photos, and if someone doesn’t agree with your tweet or status update, she’ll more likely gloss over it than bash it. Positivity flows not just from the feature set — there’s no dislike button for a reason — but from the incentives. When it’s so easy to form, grow and benefit from whole networks of relationships, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be themselves and behave.

The result: Reactions to shared themes and events flow more and more into the friendly, filtered spaces on Facebook, Twitter and the like, while some sites work to build civility by other means and others quit trying. The more the social Web takes over, the more you have to wonder: If these sites do a better job of taming online conversations, do we have any use anymore for what goes on on the older, wild west Web?

Absolutely.

Social pressure makes us mind our manners. That’s clear enough. But the lack of social pressure does something, too. There’s what we say we think, and what we actually think. Only online is it so easy to express our unfiltered thoughts — most often anonymously — without risking our reputation.

There’s a kind of freedom to that — and a crucial, if sometimes brutal, honesty. There’s a reason we conduct anonymous polls, draw curtains at voting booths and, yes, allow anonymous comments on news sites. Social norms help us get along but conceal hard truths. It’s useful to know where we stand. The open Web makes that possible.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be nice if ugly thoughts were nicely put. But the anger that builds around an issue sometimes is the hard truth. Emotions, more than anything else, reveal the fault lines that divide and define us. If we don’t hear them, and try to understand them, we’ll grow even further apart. What it comes down to is this: As long as reactions are honest, they’re worth something.

When they’re not — watch out.

A couple years ago, a friend’s boyfriend learned I was a reporter and told me he was a troll. “You’re a what?” I said. “I’m a troll. I go on newspaper comment forums and say offensive things, just to see what happens.” I’ll never forget how he smiled as he said this. “It’s hilarious.”

You can’t beat these clowns, so I do my best to ignore them. “Never wrestle with a pig,” an editor once told me. “You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”

What’s sad to me is when people equipped to have a civil discussion on the open Web see some trolling and some anger and decide not to contribute. “I wouldn’t comment because it gets so crazy out of hand,” one of my most eloquent friends said about this column. She does most of her commenting on Facebook, Twitter and on her own blog, and I get it. But part of why those sites are so civil is because they’re so segmented. Friends talk with friends talk with friends.

The broader Seattle conversation is more chaotic, but no less critical. To reflect who we really are, it has to invite voices without names — even if that attracts the dishonest — and it has to allow emotion, even if that shuts off engagement.

But let me be clear — a toxic forum is never acceptable. There are ways to inspire order in chaos that lead to incredible collaboration and understanding, as community managers on this site and others know well.

The most inclusive conversations won’t always be nice. But they’ll always be open.

They have to be.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message to her on Facebook.

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