Sticks and stones…and comments

Published 5:28 pm Saturday, February 11, 2012

Years ago, when newspapers expanded from the traditional print format into a new world of online possibilities, news sites invited readers to share their thoughts and opinions about local and world happenings.

On its best days, online commenting on stories, columns, photos and blogs is engaging and fosters the sharing of ideas. But, the creation of comment sections on news sites has also opened Pandora’s Box of anonymous bathroom wall graffiti.

The ability to post comments beside a user name instead of a real name was an invitation taken by some to be rude, cruel and even crude.

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The free-exchange of intelligent and well-thought-out opinions discussed face to face over coffee has been replaced with the option to hide behind a computer screen and name call, finger point and gossip.

It’s a problem that news organizations worldwide are seeing.

Reuters has ended anonymous commenting. The Washington Post, New York Times and Huffington Post all revised their commenting criteria, too.

After racist comments, the Buffalo News in New York discontinued anonymous user comments and now requires users to register with their name, city and phone number.

The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass., implemented a system that requires users to register with their names, addresses, phone numbers and a credit card number that is charged a one-time fee of 99 cents to activate their account. A commenter’s name and community – based on credit card information – appear by the user’s posts.

Other newspapers require you to comment under your Facebook accounts.

I’d like to think that people here don’t have to be policed in that fashion, but after reading some comments on over the past few weeks, my thoughts may be too Pollyanna-ish.

Online commenting has, even here, at times come to reflect tactics used by high school mean girls and schoolyard bullies.

Before you hit that submit button on your comment, stop and take a moment to read what you wrote. Would you stand on the street corner with a nametag on and feel comfortable saying what you wrote to passersby? Would you say it in the presence of a minor? They use the Internet, too.

If the answer is “no” to either of those questions, maybe you should delete your words and just go on with the day, or revise them to reflect something you would feel comfortable saying in person.

The saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is idealistic.

Anonymous user names can disconnect commenters from the reality of hurtful words. There are real people – whether the subject of a story, other readers, or family members of those mentioned in articles – affected by callous words. And even though there may not be outward repercussions of anonymous comments, the hate and cruelty harbored in ideas affects the comment writer negatively, too, by damaging the comment writer’s spirit and self-worth.

It’s OK to not agree with each other. It’s perfectly fine to share a different opinion or offer a different angle on a story. But to blatantly be disrespectful and downright mean in a comment just because no one will know you wrote it is childish and silly.

I can read that kind of thing on the bathroom wall at gas station. I think we’re better than that here in Pike County.