Say anything

I’ll admit it, I like to troll.

It’s a bad habit, one I wish I could break, but every time I read an article over at The Sacramento Bee, Huffington Post or even Us Weekly Web sites, my eyes sink to the end of the piece to read the reader comments.

Inevitably, much of what’s posted there, regardless of the topic, is so hateful, shit-stirring, uninformed and downright stupid that it makes me cringe. And yet I can’t look away; it’s the proverbial train wreck, online-media style.

For example, a recent Bee article about a texting argument in Redding that led to a fatal shooting elicited comments ranging from “Hilarious!” to “Must be white people arguing about meth.”

Of course, the Bee can’t necessarily be blamed for the quality of comments its readers leave—they now offer an option to “hide” comments on the site. Likewise, other sites require stringent comment preapproval. Hide, police or let it flow—why are people so awful?

Case in point: After former Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell died in a traffic accident January 2, an obituary on the Politics Daily Web site resulted in a slew of user comments that ranged from sad and sympathetic to angry and apathetic.

“Why is this newsworthy?” one commenter asked.

“Deborah Howell was thoroughly despised … she was nothing but a right wing shill,” mused another.

And: “Was she driving a Smart Car?”


Then again, perhaps the response was apropos. In 2007, some readers were aghast at the quality of discourse after The Washington Post enabled user comments on its Web site. Howell addressed the issue in a column:

“Two important journalism values—free, unfettered comment and civil, intelligent discourse—are colliding. My two cents: Monitor the comments much more vigorously and use the old journalism rule: When in doubt, take it out.”

I’m beginning to believe that “civil, intelligent discourse” and online commenting are nothing more than polarized magnets—no matter how hard you try to shove the two concepts together, they’ll never bridge the magnetic field.

Yes, there are some decent comment forums on the Web, of course—The WELL is a good example—but mostly, it seems like boorish is the status quo.

Unfortunately, such behavior is becoming more common, even in our personal Web communities, even among people not protected by a virtual shroud of anonymity.

This weekend someone I consider a friend took to Facebook to put down another friend of mine, a local musician. As I read the testy exchange (and the posts of everyone else who felt the need to chime in), I longed not just that Facebook had a “dislike” option, but I wondered what would happen if the insulter met up with his target in a face-to-face situation.

Would the same psychology that allowed his snarky spew of online insults still prevail? Would he feel the need to be so forthcoming—all in the name of bold “honesty,” of course—or would he smile and feign politeness?

Some might consider the latter option cowardly; I call it civilized, online or off.