Readers of Crosscut and other online media, including the online Seattle Times and seattlepi.com, are familiar with over-the-top personal attacks and wacky misrepresentations that show up in comment streams. Would the comments be the same if those making them had to sign their own names?
I have received over a nine-year-period negative and sometimes vicious personal attacks from one person regarding any article questioning Sound Transit policies. During the seven years in which I wrote a Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial-page column, the person identified himself as Soul Not Sold to Road Warriors. In my two-and-half years of Crosscut writing, he has gone by MadisonAve. Other writers have had similar experiences with one or two commenters who regularly pollute the comment streams following their articles.
I have challenged irresponsible posters to use their own names. One responded the other day by saying that he would fear for his safety if people knew who he was. What about authors of articles? They put their names on their work every day. Should they fear for their safety? I don't.
I have another frequent critic who identifies himself by name. That, to me, is perfectly okay. Anyone willing to put his or her name on opinions has a right to be heard, if not necessarily taken seriously.
An informal survey of local writers and editors — including several present at Crosscut's third birthday party last week — leads me to believe that they almost universally deplore the fact that people misuse anonymity to make hostile, uninformed, or outrightly untrue postings. A few national publications require posters to use their own names. But most do not — and none locally.
The people most hurt by this online clutter are serious readers who want serious dialogue about issues being addressed in articles. For them, it is demoralizing to be part of a comment stream which can be 25 percent serious and 75 percent fatuous. On those rare occasions when the percentages are reversed, it is heartening.
I try to respond to any serious comment after one of my Crosscut articles. When the comments are hostile or off-the-wall, I usually ignore them. Some other authors, I find, have adopted an alternative policy: Do not respond to anyone's online comments. When that happens, everyone loses. There is no dialogue, only monologues by both authors and commenters.
We all are familiar with the old print-journalism procedures whereby readers sent letters to the editor and a few, in the end, got published — always bearing the writers' names. Online media facilitate far broader communication in which hundreds, not a handful, of comments can be exchanged. It is a shame, it seems to me, to pollute public dialogue with comments that amount to therapy for their anonymous senders when it could, instead, provide valuable information and ideas to those participating.
A related matter, speaking of the online world and its comments, someone has used Twitter — tweeted — using my name and photo, to transmit silly observations, which some of those receiving then attribute to me.
The Twitterer in question has registered as presenting "parody" and thus is within Twitter ground rules. Please know that I do not Twitter and that another person is mischievously Twittering in my name. We are still feeling our way through cyberspace but, whether in online publications or other media, truth-in-labeling should remain important.