Back when the Democrat and Chronicle introduced a revamped Web site with lots of new social media tools back in 2008, I found idea of participating in online discussion about community and national issues really intriguing. I became active, for a while, in the online forums that were a part of the new site.
Now, joining in these online conversations isn't for the thin-skinned or faint-of-heart. Most of the participants are anonymous, and hide behind that cloak to make rude, insulting comments about other participants with whom they disagree. I won't even use the word "discussion" to describe what goes on there because to me, that word implies respectful give-and-take with the goal of reaching common ground, or at least a civil conclusion about agreeing to disagree. NOTHING about the exchanges in most of the D&C's most active forums is respectful, civil or directed at finding common ground.
I was posting under my real name, with a photo, so the insults could be (and were) directed at me by name. I'm not particularly thin-skinned, so the rough-and-tumble nature and even the insults didn't really bother me. And I tried really hard to cultivate civility. I never returned fire with the insults, and tried to encourage other participants toward more respectful behavior. To absolutely no avail.
After swimming upstream against this I eventually got tired of it, and stopped participating. I still look back in occasionally, and the same rude individuals are at it. I guess they find it fun; I found it crashingly boring to watch people hurl insults rather than try to engage in civil discussion.
Which brings me to a recent column by Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison. He notes that anonymity seems to be at the root of the problem with uncivil discourse in newspaper forums. His column was a follow-up to an earlier column in which he'd asked for feedback about the paper's coverage of Haiti. He reported that among those who chose to give comment via e-mail "None of [them] were mean-spirited (even the two who disagreed). Is it a coincidence that all of those civil people are reachable (and somewhat accountable) through a return e-mail?"
On the other side: "Of the 20 anonymous comments attached online to the column asking for feedback on earthquake coverage, most were negative. Several comments devolved to personal attacks, both on me and those readers who said anything positive"
And when he asked for comments about the comment feature itself, "Dozens said the online comments are so vitriolic and mean-spirited that they have stopped reading them. Many said it appears that the online comment option -- aimed at providing a community forum to discuss stories and issues important to central Ohio -- devolves so quickly into name-calling and hate-mongering that it's not worth their time."
The italics there are mine, not Marrison's. I emphasized those passages to raise the point that it appears I'm not the only person who'd like to have a civil discussion online but finds it a waste of time when the dominant ethos is anonymous name-calling. It appears if newspapers really want their story-comment sections and open forums to be places where productive discourse can occur, they will need to get rid of the anonymity.
There's a piece of academic research in here that I actually started work on a while ago; even did some lit review and collected some data. Reading Marrison's column reminds me that I ought to get back to it. It appears to be a topic worth further exploration.