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Blog Comments: A new Civility Barometer?

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While in L.A. on a recent business trip, I heard an ad on the hotel TV for the new BMW Hydrogen 7. I was up to my elbows trying to repack my suitcase, so I didn't actually see it, but back here in Vermont a little googling brought me to a blog about the car on As I read down through the comments, I noticed something at the bottom: The "post a comment" button doesn't say "post a comment"; it says, "post an intelligent and civil comment." Hey now--that's a little different. The next day, two different friends forwarded me this piece on civility in commenting from the Miami Herald. Seems like the fates are trying to bring something to my attention, so I'm going to play nice with karma and bring it to yours, too.

I'm cringing a little as I type, knowing that a blogger blogging about a code of conduct for leaving comments is the electronic equivalent of putting a "kick me" sign on my backside. All the same, here goes. There has long been a debate in the blogging community about whether or not to police comments. Almost a year ago, The New York Times did a piece on this topic, and I think it's worth a revisit. This may not come as a big shocker, but I'm all for a little civility on the web.

In essence, the internet is (for better or worse) the last Wild West we have left to us; a place that is slowing going the way of Dodge City, but that still has lots of places that are, if not ungoverned, at least governed with the lightest touch. It makes for a pretty raw reflection of who we are and how we express ourselves--a true barometer of our civility, if you will. But I think it's also something else--I think it's a forum to decide who we want to become as a society.

Our society here in America is synonymous with freedom of speech, yes, but not freedom from accountability. Words have power, and with power comes responsibility. The words in blogs and their comments are a form of communication, a form of interaction between anyone who writes and/or reads them. I'm going to lean on an old quote from Emily Post herself: "Whenever two people's lives affect one another, you have etiquette." You may not see or even know the person whose words you are reading, but they can engender very strong, personal reactions all the same.

If part of blogging and commenting is to take part in a global conversation--an exchange of ideas--I believe it's important to think about what our purpose is when we choose to participate. In most cases, it's to share a thought you're excited about, or to make a counterpoint to someone else in an effort to set a record straight or make a clarification. I can't think of a single case where leaving a profane or hateful comment will bring about a positive, constructive change. This doesn't mean that I think people can't disagree; in fact I'd encourage people to talk about points of difference, as it invites communication, something I talk a lot about on the job. The better our communication, the greater our understanding becomes, and the more connections we can make with people who hold similar interests. All of this hopefully leads to the generation of exciting new ideas and possibilities. I simply add my support to expressing yourself with the principles of etiquette: consideration, honesty and respect. Who wouldn't want to be treated that way?

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