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Disturbing, anonymous online comments driving discussion on changing the rules

In February, I wrote a piece for Salon.com about the Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I experienced after the traumatic delivery of my son.

I was able to, unfortunately, write it from the first person: In the article, I discussed statistics, research and my initial ambivalence over a diagnosis that seemed reserved for war veterans and rape victims. My piece was not meant to evoke sympathy; it was meant to be informative. Besides, with the amount of antidepressants ultimately prescribed for my condition, I was far too numb to feel sorry for myself.

And so I was surprised when, within hours of my article going live, a slew of nasty comments appeared below it in the area reserved for readers to respond.

"You should consider not having any more babies."

"I feel sorry for her son. Can you imagine going through life with this woman?"

Not every comment was negative. Some were sympathetic, supportive, even touching. But the mean ones — yikes — were they mean.

I don't write this to say how hurt my feelings are. Rather, I'm confused. It's okay if people would like to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of the opinions and facts discussed in my work. It's also okay with me if people simply don't like my work. What confounds me is why online commenters are so gratuitously nasty; why, when given the opportunity to have an educated disagreement with an author or other readers, they use the space allotted to spew venom instead of presenting a well-reasoned argument.

And I am not alone. In October, the Philadelphia Weekly published an article by a woman who wrote of her inability to function after a car accident. (She hadn't had health insurance.) Here was one comment by a woman calling herself Rux P.:

". . . Get a spine!! I've had breast cancer, a mastectomy and chemo. with minor health coverage and survived it . . . Get a minnie mouse bandage and go to sleep."

Why is the Internet such a cruel playground? Kathleen Taylor, the author of Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, has a theory.

"We're evolved to be face-to-face creatures," she said in a recent interview. "We developed to have constant feedback from others, telling us if it was okay to be saying what we're saying. On the Internet, you get nothing, no body language, no gesture. So you get this feeling of unlimited power because there is nothing stopping you, no instant feedback."

Online commenting should have been the Internet generation's contribution to democracy. Not only can you read your news media, but you can now discuss them with like-minded readers (instead of relying on whomever is sitting at the breakfast table with you) and even air your opinions to the writer.

But how should a writer respond to a torrent of anonymous maliciousness? A fellow writer told me long ago: "Skim the comments. When you realize one is negative, move on." I am not so evolved. I read every comment; I just don't reply. That may sound cowardly, but knowing the pouncing quality of many commenters really does silence me.

Besides, how would I respond? Would I ignore the nasties and just respond to the thoughtful readers? Or would I have to address them all? What would I say? "You mention that I should grow up. I am, in fact, 34 years old." Or "You say I need to get a life, but if you were to meet my charming family and vast social network, you would be assured that I already have one." One reason I don't respond to any comments is because I don't want the meanies to know I'm actually reading what they wrote.

But when I spoke to Jeff Jarvis, the author of What Would Google Do?, he cautioned me not to be so dismissive. "The Internet isn't a medium the way you think it is," he said. "It's a place. We give people this article all nice and wrapped up in a bow, and we expect them to be happy to read it. Now, with comments sections, we have to talk about when we let people into this process and how. This notion that we're done, now you can talk, is inherently insulting."

Online anonymity is something that others seem concerned about as well. Connie Schultz, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, sharply criticized the practice of newspaper websites to allow anonymous comments, saying in an online piece in late March, "Maybe that's the foolish optimist in me, but I want to believe that we will finally admit — to ourselves and to the public at large — that allowing people to hide behind anonymity has not been good for our industry, our culture or our country."

And the New York Times reported earlier this month that several news media outlets are rethinking their approach to anonymous reader comments. The idea is to hold users more accountable and to prevent some of the user-generated vitriol that takes place online. I, for one, couldn't be happier.

I may never know what motivates the mean commenters to be so cruel. I spent a week inside the trenches, trying to get some of the worst offenders to give me an interview. Not surprisingly, no one responded. I even considered doing some nasty commenting myself to see if there is some sort of addictive rush that accompanies it, but I couldn't bring myself to.

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Disturbing, anonymous online comments driving discussion on changing the rules 04/23/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 26, 2010 10:57am]

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