In the past few months, I have undertaken a weekly task of writing articles for the University Leader, which I have immensely enjoyed. As an aspiring writer and soon-to-be graduate with an English degree in hand, nothing makes me happier than putting pen to paper and using the greatest distinctly human quality – language – to put my own beliefs and perceptions in a clear and understandable form.
As a staff writer, though, I have been alerted to one terrific danger of writing for an audience in the 21st century: extreme, anonymous and often ignorant online commentary.
Sure, I’ve held a Facebook account for several years now, providing me with access to a multitude of vicious and uninformed word fights; and yes, I have witnessed a plethora of ridiculous comments made by people in online forums or on articles from, say, Fox Sports.
However, I wasn’t truly aware of how significantly insulting and degrading such commentary was until I, too, was subjected to it. I understand criticism is a danger of writing for a publication, and I even embrace the fact that others host opinions in opposition to mine – otherwise, this world would be a boring place – but I do have a few suggestions for online etiquette.
I perused a number of online publications this weekend and was appalled at the vile comments left by people with names such as “SparklingGemini” and “ksuSUCKS1234567” and “ChristianNinja69.”
Observation number one? People take far too much comfort in the anonymity screen names provide. A 25-character allotment for commentator names affords too many choices to people who would do well to consult a dictionary prior to posting any comment online, much less a comment that is intended to be scathingly intelligent.
By choosing to use a made-up name rather than one’s own first or last name, commentators are free to assume zero responsibility for their words.
Another finding: when people comment on articles via internet, they forget that an actual human wrote that article. For example, while watching the evening news with my parents once, we witnessed the disappointing and disturbing story of a teenage girl who had committed suicide after being bullied by one of her friends’ moms on a social network.
Obviously, this situation has serious psychological components of its own – for both the young girl and the mother.
What I find intriguing is that so many people who choose to add their spin to a writer’s work adopt the same mental stance the mother took: Because this person does not know who I am, because I am an unknown face with an unknown set of values, ideals and beliefs, I may offer any comment I wish without taking any responsibility for negative results.
Yikes. That’s dismaying, disheartening, terrifying – to make use of a serious understatement.
Freedom of speech: I get it. It’s an inherent right that people choose to exercise on a daily basis. Does this right make comments such as “(Name), you suck”; or “You’re clearly another uneducated religious fanatic”; or “(Name), you’re probably wearing one of those KKK hoods right now, you racist (bleep)” acceptable? Absolutely not.
Rather than take personal offense to articles or jump to the conclusion that one knows the writers personally – including their work history, political standpoint or religious affiliation – keep comments thoughtful and polite, please. Hasty assumptions and degrading slurs do nothing to garnish respect for an online commentator.
A person can comment on slip-ups without being rude and inconsiderate; yes, this is actually possible. It is also completely permissible to disagree with a writer and to offer your viewpoint in a literate and accepting manner. Better still, not all commentary must be directed as harsh criticism or negative feedback; a kind word of praise here and there is definitely tolerable. Appalling, I know.
America is indeed a special place that allows citizens to make use of free, uncensored speech – well, sometimes – but this right to speak openly and critically does not mean we should abandon the practices of civility or intelligent rhetoric.
By allowing comments to be posted online, publications have respected the rights of others to demonstrate free speech, so utilize these tools with dignity and equal levels of respect for the writer that you are regarding as well as other commentators.
Keep in mind that when you write that someone is “blind to the truth” or an “ignorant, uneducated product of such-and-such university,” you are slandering another person. Remember what our mothers told us as children? If you don’t have anything nice – or relevant – to say, say nothing at all.
We’re afforded the right to our own opinions and allowed to do extensive or no research at all to back up opinions or beliefs, although that can sadly lead to ignorance; but if one must criticize the work of another, at least create an illusion of intelligence by using correct punctuation, capitalization and grammar. And for God’s sake, before you hit the “Submit Comment” button, use spell check.