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?