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Can We Still Talk Online?

Push is on to improve reader forums on the Net. First in a series.

David Beers 15 May

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee. Over the next week, The Tyee will be publishing a series of articles by various writers exploring some challenges and changing approaches in online culture and discourse.

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Beyond the flame game.

How are you feeling about the Internet these days? Specifically, the interactive nature of the Net that allows you (and anyone else with a modem) to post comments online in forums like the threads following Tyee stories?

Has the resulting digital chatter made the real world a better place, and you a better human being?

When we founded The Tyee 42 months ago, the answer was a given. Compared to the one-way, top-down format of newspapers and television, the Net was a democratic dream. We were creating a place where readers could talk back, set us straight, deepen the conversation and take it where it needed to go.

That's what a lot of online editors envisioned while pushing forward sites like Salon and Slate and Rabble. They, like us, wanted as many interactive readers as possible. Heck, when The Tyee started, you didn't even have to register to hop online and namelessly tell everyone what you thought.

'Frequently thoughtless and foul'

How are you feeling about the Internet these days? I ask because a growing number of voices are now saying that too often there is something lacking, even destructive, in the way conversation is carried out in anonymous cyberspace.

We have heard it from CBC columnist Heather Mallick, who says she no longer reads online comments about her pieces. "There is wonderful writing online, but it is frequently thoughtless and foul, racist and frightening. It is so free that blogs, chat lines and talk threads are often the chosen destination for embittered, deranged people, repelling the intelligent readers who were supposed to make the Internet a new haven for humanity."

We have heard it from Gary Kamiya, a founder of Salon, who says when "the readers strike back" with their flaming rebukes, the bylined reporting isn't made better, but worse. Writers learn to play it safer, flatten their voices, self-censor. Some of the best online journalists have become far less willing to probe the personal, because the supremely personal makes one supremely vulnerable to anonymous cruelty.

Kamiya says a Salon story about a family shattered by the loss of a mother in the 9/11 tragedy drew from readers cold advice for the survivors, including this callous instruction: quit "wallowing."

He notes: "The context of online communication is more like being in your car in a traffic jam than sitting across a table from someone and having a talk -- and it's easy to flip somebody off through a rolled-up window. As a result, the kind of people who are prone to flipping others off, braying obscenities and ranting pointlessly are disproportionately represented in online letters sections and reader blogs."

'Afraid to leave my yard'

We have heard one of the darkest indictments of Internet society from Kathy Sierra. She is the brilliant tech blogger who found threats of sexual violence and murder, including obscene photoshopped images, posted on her web site. "I have cancelled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard. I will never feel the same. I will never be the same." Sierra links her experience to a bullying sexism that pervades too many online forums. "I do not want to be part of a culture -- the Blogosphere -- where this is considered acceptable. Where the price for being a blogger is Kevlar-coated skin . . . ."

We have heard it from critics who say online "communities" can't be communities if people aren't made to be responsible to one another. If all that is reinforced are rumours, resentments, biases. We have heard it from online advocates who fret the medium is too easily manipulated by frauds paid to plant fake commentary.

We have heard it from Jim Brady, the executive editor of the Washington Post's Internet edition, who last year turned off the reader comments feature on "The move came after several comments containing personal attacks, profanity and hate speech were posted on an item about Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell's recent column about the Abramoff scandal: Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff, (Post, Jan. 15).

When he shut off the comments, Brady wrote, "We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it."

The Washington Post did restart its blog threads, and convened this fascinating online discussion about improving the content and tone of online conversation. Other big name sites are grappling openly with similar questions. Slate is now in the process, its editors say, of "repairing" its message boards.

Room to improve

Watching all this go down, we at The Tyee are grateful to our readers who contribute thoughtful, engaged comments that enhance, and sometimes even correct, the journalism we produce and present.

And yet, we believe there is room for improvement in the tone, the substance, the vitality of those conversations.

We note (from our reader surveys) that less than one per cent of our readers actually contribute comments. We calculate that a significant majority of our commenters are male. That a handful of commenters are responsible for the majority of comments. That the number of regular commenters is not growing, though our readership is.

And, frankly, there are times when some threads are too heavy with crudities, personal squabbles, nonsense and bad faith. A lot of our readers have told us that sort of stuff puts them off of reading all Tyee comments threads. They have told us they wish we'd moderate the threads more, and find some way to reward those who make the effort to be civil and add information and arguments that relate to the topic of the article.

How are you feeling about the Internet these days, as you read The Tyee? Do you agree that this could be made a more welcoming place for people who wish to engage in constructive conversation?

If so, please return here tomorrow, when we will unveil a new approach to readers commenting here on The Tyee.

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