Sunday, July 03, 2011

Do You Think Before You Comment?

One of the things I love as a writer about the internet is the instant accessibility to information - of all sorts. Once upon a time Wikipedia was scorned by all and now it's seen more and more as a first port of call when you want to know something (although still banned as a source for academic research because it can be unreliable). I can look up the meaning of a word, reviews of a new book, comments by the author about their new book, subscribe to free newsletters of interest, get industry information, find out if a publisher is accepting submissions right now ... the list goes on. And it's great.

The internet is seen as the last bastion of freedom of speech. You can say (almost) anything and have your opinions read far and wide. I say almost because thankfully there are laws against some things still. But for writers, those of us adept at the written word, the internet is a treasure chest. Writers' forums abound, writers' groups on Google and Yahoo flourish, and any time someone says something interesting, writers tweet it around the world so we can all have an opinion. We can all comment.

Which is turning out to be not such a good thing. In fact, it's turning into a new form of censorship. Writers who formerly wrote great blog posts about issues and experiences are finding how simple it has become for others out there to harass and pillory them, simply for expressing a view (but obviously a view that some others vehemently disagree with). These writers are starting to wonder if they even want to keep blogging. After all, why put yourself up for hate comments, simply for saying what you think? YA writer, Natalie Whipple, has blogged about something that is becoming a growing problem. Censorship by harassment.

Recently, a writer for the NY Times wrote a piece about darkness in YA fiction. This is not a new topic. People have been writing opinion pieces about this forever. John Marsden can testify to that! But suddenly everyone wanted to have a say about this article. Fine. No problem. Except some people got pretty vicious. And it's happening now on a regular basis, in many different areas. The end effect? Writers are starting to wonder if it's worth putting your words out there, if what you get back, instead of discussion, is hate.

If you think I'm over-reacting, try looking in the comments section of any online newspaper. Recently a book about Muslim women was published in our area. I know two of the women involved (two great writers) and the book looks terrific. The article in the Herald Sun newspaper chose to focus on Pauline Hanson instead of the book itself and what it was about - not surprising, given the HS take on things. But I think what astonished me, and many people I spoke to, was the Comments section. I'm singling this out because I'm interested, but when I've looked at other Comments following newspaper articles, I've seen the same thing.

A great big bunch of people who think commenting means saying some really ugly things. Usually anonymously. Or putting up that they're "Bob from Melbourne". Yeah, right. Newspapers argue that they need to allow commenters to post anonymously or with fake names to stimulate or encourage debate. Someone needs to remind them what debate actually means.

Yes, the internet is fantastic. But like anything, it has a dark side. I believe that if you want to enter the debate, if you really want people to listen, you say who you are. And you don't use the comment section to vent hatred in a personal way. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Yes, I think before I comment especially since even comments you write on other people's blogs show up in a google search. The response we received to that article Herald Sun article was horrific, but I choose to believe that anonymity gives people licence to be vicious in way they would never be if they had to put their name to it. We also had a really positive outcome with a story featured on Today Tonight where the reporters avoided the sensationalist angle because of our involvement. We were really happy to have this happen since our experiences with mainstream have been hit and miss. Still I do censor myself on my own blog and when on the blogosphere. You just never know when you'll open up a can of worms and bring out the crazies. I take the attitude if I wouldn't say it to someone's face...

Also could you please update our website link to this:

Thanks for your post and linking to the project.

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Amra - link updated!

Jonathan Shaw said...

I try to avoid the comments section in newspapers for this very reason, but when I forget I try to imagine the ugly commenters as 15 year olds who are finding a place where they can fight back against the playground bullies, with no idea that there are real people at the receiving end of their nastiness.

Sherryl said...

Exactly, Jonathan. Being online and anonymous seems to bring out the worst in people, with no sense of who they are actually attacking.
Although I read an article a few weeks ago about the kinds of emails female TV presenters get, which was even more horrifying.

Anonymous said...

I teach sixth grade, and encourage my students to comment on my blog. There is definitely a learning curve for them as I expect insightful (for eleven year olds) remarks, not just 'that's cool' or 'that sucked.' I tell them writing is communicating and they need to communicate clearly. They don't have to like it, but they do have to comment in a professional way. Hopefully they will internalize that and keep doing it!

Sherryl said...

That's a great idea, and would get them thinking, for sure. It's that whole thing about the net and who is reading - everyone!
I answered blog posts the week my chapter was on the MS Readathon and some of the comments were very thoughtful.