Public Discourse in the Internet Age

Internet commenting and social media posts can bring the brilliant, the hilarious and sometimes offensive and ignorant voices into the conversation.

The truly revolutionary aspect of the Internet is the ability for people around the world, from almost every walk of life, to connect online. You learn what people think, from celebrity gossip to scientific innovations and ancient philosophy. Anyone can watch an eyewitness video of breaking news, how to use folk wisdom on dealing with squirrels and find tutorials on solving Algebra problems.

What a comeback!

The Internet is also a place where people can debate one another, weigh in on the worthiness of a piece of art or try out their schtick as an insult comic. In many cases the commentor is anonymous so they are freed from any fear of real-life repercussions or loss of social status. This anonymity, unfortunately, can bring out the worst in some folks, giving them free rein to leave offensive comments that would normally be self-filtered if they were delivered in person.

So how do we approach this free-ranging conversation so that we can engage in the positive aspects of open dialogue? Can we raise the quality of commenting?

Visit safe neighborhoods

Reward news sites, blogs, social media groups that have comment moderation or involved site managers who keep an eye on the content posted. Many sites are using Facebook integration to make people "own" their posted opinions. Others will allow you to report offensive comments so that differences in opinion can be fair game but not speech that would not pass the "sniff test" of community values.

Many sites will often hold comments for moderation, especially for new commenters. This allows the site manager to gauge appropriateness and reduce spammers who try to send you to outside links.

Patch.com has site registration and terms of use that state the following: "While we encourage people to be honest and post what’s on their mind, communities thrive when people care about each other, and as such, Patch expects all of its users to be respectful of others. This means that whether you are being complimentary or critical, whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with the subject of an article or another user’s comment, you should act in a civil manner and refrain from personal attacks – after all, these are your neighbors."

Keep in mind, however, that this doesn't mean that even the most well-meaning site will be able to filter all offensive comments, and that just because someone's ideas may seem "offensive" to you they may not cross the line for everyone.

Think before hitting 'Enter'

Sometimes we need to "check ourselves" by re-reading the comments we post and thinking about the consequences. Often, things meant to be humorous, when viewed without context, smiles or subleties in voice, are simply not funny or appropriate when they appear as simple words on a screen.

Remember, nothing is forgotten on the Internet. Your off-color joke could be found by your employer, your potential significant other, your grandmother, or, more mortifyingly, your kids. If instead of assuming that everything you do is anonymous, think that everything is being recorded for posterity and I am sure that you might second-guess how hilarious you may seem twenty-years from now.

Teach your children well

What your teach your children offline is laying the foundation for their behavior online. Hateful speech is learned from many sources but as a parent you can explain your values and what you will not tolerate from them in your presence. If you discuss why language matters, and how it can hurt, you are preparing them to be able to speak effectively online and in person.

Informal speech and profanity is more accepted in some online neighborhoods. But just like the concept of inside voices versus outside voices is explained to the youngest children, they need to be taught that using slang and profanity, or ignoring all rules of spelling and grammar will cost them credibility and undercut their opinions they are trying to share. We have all seen someone online trying to convince us of the correctness of their position but the use of swear words or indeciferable spelling will cause us to immediately consider their opinions to be born of ignorance. Ask your kids their reaction to those kinds of posts, and I sure they do the same thing.

Don't feed the trolls

The term "troll" refers to a person who is trying to provoke a reaction by posting something that is so off-point, offensive or counter-productive that they know you won't be able to resist addressing them. Resist the urge. What a troll wants is attention. Take Hermione Granger's advice from the Harry Potter books: "Ignore them, ignore them."

If they have violated the sites community policy, do report the post for the sake of others, but if it is just a ridiculous and obviously ignorant comment, don't fall into the troll's trap.

Develop a thick skin 

Online conversations are often coarse. People use a lot of profanity even without realizing it. I often find myself getting agitated by a group of what I consider to be ignorant, racist or sexist comments. When that time comes, I can choose to simply not read the comments, leave the page or revolutionarily enough, get up and walk away from the screen. Just because something is written it doesn't mean that I have to read it. Before the internet we didn't know what every random stranger thought about every news story, we still don't need to.

Take the opportunity to learn a different way of thinking

Just as not every ignorant comment requires your attention, take advantage of learning to expand your own world view by learning from the opinions of others. Oftentimes, it seems that people will simply read and react without taking the time to think about the issue.

Maybe your brain to expand to embrace novel concepts. Perhaps others can teach you to look at a topic in a new way. And not just on political or philosophical matters, maybe you can learn to appreciate something that you simply wrote off from whatever previous biases you held. Even something as simple as an online restaurant review might make you willing to give a breakfast place a new try, or to go back and watch films that you assumed would be of no value.

Social media allows us to hold conversations with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences and knowledge that we may not possess. Finding your own way of expressing your voice and finding communities that teach you new ways of enjoying life is the promise of online communities, don't be afraid to join in the conversation.

Jody September 12, 2012 at 08:20 PM
Learning about new restaurants is not so different from learning new facts. But online comments don't deal with facts. People are giving their opinions. People who won't buy into someone else's "obvious fact" aren't closed minded or biased. They don't need to have their brains expanded and they don't have to embrace novel concepts. They don't have to accept that there is no right and wrong because everyone has their own viewpoint (moral or value relativism). They are free to remain steadfast about what they believe and express it online. I agree that online comments can be very harsh and that people should try to be move civil. But I didn't care for your advice. I still believe it mirrors the liberal notion that the whole problem is with dinosaur conservatives who just need to come out of their caves to be educated and exposed to the "truth."
Terry September 12, 2012 at 08:52 PM
What is getting to me are the sponsored links going to Yelp and other websites by businesses. To me this is really underhanded and I make a personal point never to use that business. I know i am not alone on this feeling.
EL September 24, 2012 at 06:29 PM
It is important to respect the personal beliefs of people. That being said, if somebody is demonstrably wrong, we should be able to say as much and not have to fear repercussion. Often what starts out as a civil conversation ends up devolving into a brawl when somebody's beliefs are questioned. Nobody, enjoys it when that happens, but it is part of personal enrichment. We all should examine our personal philosophies from time to time to ensure we are basing our decisions on up-to-date factual information. After all, not all matters black and white. And some issues in the grey areas, are in fact, not so grey. The distinction is not always readily apparent The evolution of what we as individuals know, or more accurately, what we think we know should be common practice. If people didn't wise up, we'd still be debating whether or not human evolution should be discussed in school. Ideally we should all be civil in all discussions. Further, when discussing matters of personal importance we need to fact check, remember we do not know everything, and realize that there are people better informed than ourselves in certain disciplines. If you are getting frustrated and worked up, take a step back. Then find the relevant supporting information and respond with civility when you have had a chance to calm down. Reasonable discourse requires patience and critical thinking. Most importantly though, don't feed the Trolls.
Charles Sutherland September 24, 2012 at 09:32 PM
If someone says the world is flat, is it "important to respect the personal beliefs"? Nonsense. If they are ignorant idiots, one has a moral and social responsibility to mention that before they deceive too much of the public. This is a society of politically correct deceit. If something is "correct" it doesn't need the word 'political.' When that word is added, it means the lie is coming any moment. This country has become a nation of mentally and emotionally dishonest people. I would say "intellectually dishonest" but that would be giving too much credit and respect to people's "personal beliefs." That's why Obama still has support. People are afraid to tell the truth.
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