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Meghan Daum: What's the key to civil discourse online?

January 19, 2012 |  1:36 pm

Web user
Readers of my column know I'm fascinated by the basic, eternal comment-board questions: "Why are people so mean?"  "Is vitriolic spewing on the Web just another sign of the apocalypse?"  

Of course, plenty of others are just as interested in the way "instant response" (you know, typing fast and then clicking a mouse, rather than getting a pen, finding the paper, writing a letter, sticking it in the U.S. mail) has changed the nature of reading, writing and just being a person.

I heard from some of them last week via Patt Morrison's KPCC radio show. I was on it because I wrote a 5,000+-word essay, "Haterade" -- about the vituperative nature of certain forms of online interactivity --  for the January issue of the Believer magazine (which, by the way, doesn't allow for comments on its website).  Cheryl Cox in Woodland Hills posted this on Patt's KPCC page, "With all due respect to you authors, I learn as much from the discussion that follows an article as from the article itself."  Ryan Johnson  said,  "I'm horrified by the hate that people freely express" and added that "genuine discussion rarely happens in a comments section." Meanwhile, "Eleanor in Los Feliz" wrote that she appreciated the "meta" aspect of "comment-conversing on a story about comment-conversing."  Me too. 

Offline, lots of people  have told me they would like to take part in online discussions but that the ugly rantings of the few too often drown out the good intentions of the many, and it ultimately doesn't seem worth the trouble. Others pine for the days, pre-blogosphere, when conversations about political and cultural issues generally took place in person among friends or colleagues who knew how to combine vehement disagreement with respectful listening. Meanwhile, many young people, some of them fledgling writers, admit they sometimes censor their most original, daring ideas out of fear of the "haterade." 

No one wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater, not that we could  at this stage in digital history. As we learned last year, the anonymity of the Web can help topple dictators, but there's no foolproof way to prevent people from also using that cover to air their most venomous, gratuitous grievances in a manner they wouldn't think of doing in real life. Even comment-by-comment monitoring doesn't help much. It's impractical, and besides, whose standard should prevail; where do you draw the line?  

At The Times, comments on some blogs are implemented through Facebook, which may engender more civility than utterly anonymous threads. But is it fair to force people to join Facebook if they want to post a comment? (Personally, I think not.) Moreover, if someone is determined to spew invective while hiding behind a false identity, don't The Times' Facebook comments prove it's  pretty easy to do?  (Not to give you guys any ideas. ) 

If  you think you have the key to civil discourse, by all means let us know.  Meanwhile, read the piece, if for no other reason than to snicker over the embarrassing opening anecdote, which describes an ill-conceived, messily argued and (rightfully) lambasted (without benefit of comment boards) article I published in the mid-1990s when I was a fledgling kulturkritic/opinionator/navel gazer. No doubt my loyal haters will appreciate the opportunity to make up for the online pummeling I dodged back then.

Oh, and here's a comment footnote:  What's the real derivation of "haterade"?  I always thought it was coined by young, snarky blogger types, but I'm hearing that it is actually a hip-hop expression (the Urban Dictionary’s first entry calls it "a figurative drink representing a modality or thought" and doesn't mention hip hop). So if you know the answer, please speak up. Just try not to use all caps if you can help it.


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--Meghan Daum

Photo credit: Christina House / For The Times

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