Contemplation: On Words and Responsibility on the Internet

Whether or not you find the Internet personally useful, or even really like it for that matter, there is no denying the impact that it is having on the world as a ubiquitous communications system, an entity of sorts which has found its way into every aspect of human life and interaction.  That being said I feel like it is constantly worth thinking about the personal responsibility which comes with using such a tool as the Internet.

While there is a great number of areas that can be focused on as far as Internet etiquette and responsibility goes, the place that I’d like to offer some opinion about today deals directly with how we communicate with others on the web, especially in regard to the ability to “comment” on others posts or content.  What got me thinking about how we comment on other’s content on the Internet was a blog post by The New York Times’ Randy Cohen entitled “Is It O.K. to Blog About This Woman Anonymously?”  The post contemplates the merits and demerits of the “anonymous” commenter and their comments.

This has been a matter of interest to me for some time now.  As a blogger I receive comments on my posts rather regularly andfeel that thus far I have been fortunate in that I have avoided any really spiteful, hurtful, or all around disrespectful commenting.  Of course it helps that I can monitor all my comments for approval, but that being said, I generally approve all comments, even if they voice an opinion different to my own, as long as the comment it written in a respectful manner.  In truth I have a bigger problem with inane comments than with outright hostile commenting.  Now, I admit that, not having a huge following, a lot of the comments which I receive come directly from people I know on a personal level.  Other repeat commenters, who I may not actually know, have struck up enough of a regular conversation that I am open to hearing what they have to say and appreciate their perspectives.  I also get the random commenters here and there.  Again, most of these are fine and offer little bits of insight or just a general comment of appreciation.  Again, the comments I most often delete are the ones that are absolutely meaningless offering no quality dialog or further interest to the blog content which I have created.

Only once have I encountered what I would call somewhat open hostility, which really were matters of personal opinion (you can judge for yourself by reading the comments and my responses on this post).  I personally allowed all of them because they drove a bit of a conversation and even if there were some insults slid in there I think I have tough enough skin to handle them.  You see for me commenting, at least on blog posts, is all about driving the conversation forward.

So what about the anonymous commenter?  Is it okay to leave a comment anonymously? 

I would have to say that it really all depend on the context of the comment left.  if you are choosing to remain anonymous merely to write insults or badger a poster then I would say you really should not be  commenting in the first place because what are you contributing to conversation by being rude, disrespectful, and cruel.  If you really have a qualm with a blog post or some other form of Internet content then why not take the time to formulate a legitimate argument against the what is offered in the initial content andalso defend your position.  Whether or not you think somebody is a “moron” or a “shit head” or a “raging slutbag” has little merit in a pursuit of open discussion and dialog.  It may very well be your own position but if that is the best you can offer as a refute to a piece of online content then you are pretty much admitting that you have no legitimate counterargument.  Content creators should never have to deal with this kind of inane cruelty and blatant unsupported attacks.

There are also commentors, anonymous and or not, who might not attack the actual merits of a post but decide to use the commenting as a platform to push hatefu rhetoric.  Again, if this commenting adds nothing to a meaningful dialog then it is essentially just additional junk being added to the Web.    Furthermore, even if it is not directly against or attacking the content on which it is commenting, the overall disrespectful rhetoric can cause harm to the post or content purely by association alone.

I guess the real question should be “what are you protecting by posting an anonymous comment.”  Are you perhaps protecting yourself from some form of political retaliation or other oppression for voicing an opinion, or are you merely being a jerk and don’t have the, pardon my description, ball to own up to you own hateful, and likely meaningless, commenting?  Seriously, if you have something meaningful to contribute then what do you really have to hide beside perhaps your personal safety (again from oppression or some other retaliation).

I’m sure some trollish folks would claim that by commenting anonymously they are “protecting” themselves but the fact of the matter is that when the best that is being written in comment is just a bunch of insulting and disrespect then there is no right to be protected because you are not creating a supported argument of merit in a contextual conversation.

In some ways I think that this is one area where traditional print media can one-up the Internet.  To comment on the print media, say a newspaper, people who wish to voice their own opinions usually do so in the form of “letters to the editor.”  Now I am sure some controversial stories are likely to create a fair amount of hate mail that really offers nothing in regards to quality discussion, but it seems like any well written letter voicing either support for a story or arguments against one deserves a degree of recognition.  The editorial vetting process allows the most thoughtful opinions and comments, regardless of argument stance, to be made viewable.  Obviously some websites, such as The New York Times’ (which of course is based in the print media) have the ability to strictly monitor what comments are made visible to other readers and in this way encourage an approach of respectful dialog.  As such I think that it is advisable that most sites that allow commenting of some fashion to enact moderating procedures.

But doesn’t this lead to censorship?

Censorship can always be a risk, but in a society that values the freedom of speech, comment moderation should be approach with a simple criterion.  This criterion should simply be: Does the comment add a meaningful perspective, opinion, idea, etc. which, regardless of stance, contributes to the overall conversation created through this commenting feature.  A moderator of comments should avoid there personal biases in approval or denial of comments.  Likewise, a website offering comments, should choose to be open to comment that may offer contrary perspectives to their own personal views or ideals.

Really at the core of all of this is the question of “what constitutes freedom of speech?”

I believe in freedom of speech to it’s core.  Personally I think the freedom of allowing individuals to express their own personal opinions, ideas, desires, and so forth is essential to the working of democracy.  That being said though I think that it is important that people realize that language and expression has actual impacts on the world, for better or worse.  

Benjamin Franklin famously stated “give me twenty-six lead soldiers and I will rule the world world.”  This quote was later repeated by the philosopher and political activist Karl Marx.  It may be the truth that few of us are ever likely to be as influential and long lasting in our personal rhetoric as either Franklin or Marx were, but the point should not be lost upon us.  In that we are endowed with freedom of speech andbelief we must consider how these rights effect those around us.  Empty hateful speech may essentially be a right that we have but to what value or benefit does it serve.  I fear that often we choose to default to foolish and hasty words than to take the moment to collect ourselves, choose our careful argument, and take an actual stance.  And it is worth remembering that freedom of speech does not protect one if the words used are in a slanderous, libel, or defamatory way, for in those sense words have truly become weapons.

really I think that it is all quite fascinating and fun to think about and, in regards to the content of this post, I’d love to read some other opinions and ideas in the form of comments.  Of course let it be remembered that, being the sole arbitrator of this blog, I have no qualms about snuffing the inane, stupid, disrespectful, or otherwise wasteful use of language.  Proceed with wit and wisdom and be recognized for your effort.

~ by Nathaniel on August 26, 2009.

One Response to “Contemplation: On Words and Responsibility on the Internet”

  1. […] the thing, I stand by what I said in my previous contempation, about having responsibility in regards to our use of language and how words can have real impacts […]

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