A few days ago someone said he wanted to axe me a “philosophical” question.
“Go ahead, but I’m not very philosophical,” I allowed.
The question: What is the difference between a newspaper refusing to print anonymous letters and allowing anonymous comments on its Web site?
No earthly idea, I replied. That’s not my fight, not my decision.
I’m reasonably certain his question was prompted by a recent post on the Bulletin’s Web site that took a shot at another person in his office. He took it kind of personal, and I don’t blame him.
The young woman who got bashed wasn’t really the target of the poster’s anger. She was just a launching board who gave the anonymous poster an excuse to vent at the real target of his anger — Christianity.
Obviously it’s a growing trend for newspapers to have some kind of forum on their Web sites for anonymous posts. The Bulletin joined that trend a few months ago, and I have mixed emotions on whether that’s a good or bad idea.
You’re probably thinking, whatsa matter, cat juggler, did someone post something hateful and hurtful about you? I don’t know if anyone has recently, but that’s irrelevant. I figgers, if I’m gonna swing out there like a big boy, I’d better be ready to take it in return. So, get in line, take your best shot!
In one regard, I might say, look, these forums are anonymous on purpose, and if you don’t like it them, don’t read them. Some of the posts are entertaining and lively. Some are thoughtful and insightful. Does the fact that they are anonymous diminish their value? (Especially the ones that say nice things about me. Oh, wait — there haven’t been any.)
On the other cat, I do find it annoying when people post smart-aleck, attack-dog comments, especially ones that are utterly devoid of any rational thought or logic, and hide behind anonymity. You know — kooks.
Some of the posts seem to be right off Jerry Springer, and perhaps I should take my own advice: if I don’t like them, don’t read them.
Some of the comments reveal the author’s long-standing grudges and prejudices — and you can say that of anonymous posts or signed letters to the editor. Or, I suppose, non-anonymous cat jugglers.
A recent letter in another newspaper attacked a proposal to “let big oil companies drill on pristine public lands and to build refineries on closed military bases without regard to environmental laws, old ideas that have been soundly rejected time and again …”
The author revealed the real target of his anger when he referenced “the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney Administration.” That’s who he’s mad at. He cares nothing about the cost of oil or the environment.
A sampling of anonymous comments from another newspaper’s Web site, in which posters attack each other over an article about a motorcycle fatality:
“You are a jerk of the first order.”
“Who is the jerk?”
“At least you are in a cage, where you apparently belong.”
“You are the one with no common sense.”
Perhaps I should take my own advice and quit reading these comments, although I freely admit: when someone says “hey cat juggler, didya see the comments on your article on such-and-such,” I leave the cats to juggle themselves for a few minutes while I hastily access the Bulletin’s Web site.
The San Angelo Standard Times has suspended their comments forum. An article by the paper’s editor, Tim Archuleta, referenced a post from a former San Angelo resident who lives in the East: “I read the comments on here almost every day and am amazed at the losers who post hateful comments. The entire country is watching you San Angelo and they see how messed up the people of San Angelo are by these comments.”
“First, we don’t agree that San Angelo is filled with losers with hate in their hearts,” Archuleta’s article stated. “But we are concerned that some comments posted on stories on our Web site are having a damaging effect on our community.
“We launched the comments feature that allows anonymous postings to our Web site more than a year ago. We believed at the time, and still do, that this is a powerful way for West Texans to join in the important public discussion on topics that affect our lives.
“For months … some Web readers have turned the comments feature into a tool to spread hate and do harm. Other readers have expressed strong dissatisfaction with those who can’t play by the rules to keep Web comments on topic.”
The newspaper’s comments forum will return July 1, but with a major change: no more anonymous comments, Archuleta wrote.
He also wrote, “I have always admired those select few who comment on our site with the courage and conviction to include their names to the Web posts. Others would rather use a computer screen to hide in cyberspace as they go on cowardly attacks.”
Archuleta’s comments would be apropos for any community. Just take a look at any online comment forum, any newspaper, any community.
Steve Nash writes his column for the Brownwood Bulletin on Thursdays. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.