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Bile in the Blogosphere

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Unbridled. Uncensored. Unfiltered. And at times, unpleasant. I know it's very "old media" of me to admit this, but I am often unnerved by the lack of civility on the Web.

You'll have to forgive the old-media mind-set. Before I became a senior editor at the popular political blog the Huffington Post, I was a broadcast journalist. Since leaving the relative gentility of television, I've been on the front lines of the online revolution. In my current role I'm reminded every day that the Internet is free speech on steroids, an open forum for delivering news and information, opinion and analysis. And in the freewheeling world of click-and-send, a new permissiveness has emerged. There's no need for proper sentence structure, correct spelling or carefully constructed arguments. Actual language has been replaced by smileys and LOLs. And all too often, online discourse progresses from casual to downright uncivil.

With a click of the "Post Comment" button, Netizens can quickly bring down the level of dialogue. Bloggers lob zingers, commenters trade barbs, and bullies target kids in the cyber schoolyard. Mudslinging--a time-honored political tradition--thrives on the Web. And trafficking in the bilious and the vituperative has become big business. In an era in which making noise is essential to standing out and breaking through the clutter, naughty will, by definition, win out over nice.

Gawker Media--a collection of sites that includes, among others, Gawker, Jezebel, and Defamer--has created a mini-industry by skewering everyone from the
big (and small) names of the media biz to ordinary couples whose weddings are deemed too prominently featured in the weekend style section of the New York Times. And in so doing, Gawker helped set a new tone on the Web. "Snarky was a new and different way of treating subjects--airing dirty laundry, tossing off the kid gloves that had long been used when covering the well-to-do," says Kate Lee, an ICM agent who represents both writers and bloggers. Among her clients: Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of Gawker, who has since moved on.

Millions log on to popular new celebrity infotainment and gossip sites like TMZ.com or PerezHilton.com for their daily celebrity smackdowns. And there are dozens of copycat sites cruelly poking fun at the flaws of Hollywood's red-carpet royalty. On the Web no subject is sacrosanct. No one, from icon to unknown, is off-limits. Sex may be among the Web's most popular search terms, but snark is where the true sizzle is.

Perhaps nowhere is the Web more ill-behaved than in the posted-comments section, where a vicious and vocal minority reigns. In her book On Becoming Fearless...in Love, Work, and Life, my boss, Arianna Huffington, includes a story of mine about flunking an on-air screen test for an anchor position: I'd choked and, in my panic, forgotten names, dates and events and more
or less just bumbled my way through it. After the book's publication, we put an excerpt on the site that included my story.

The blog commenters were quick to pounce: "You're a dumb-blonde, airhead READER who can't ad-lib during actual NEWS and you fail a screen-test," one screamed.

I'd been taken to task publicly before, even once in the venerable New York Times. But as public and uncomfortable as those experiences were, they lacked the sting of personally demeaning diatribes hurled under the cover of screen names.

Writer and social commentator Lesley Blum says: "People wrote nasty anonymous pamphlets about Marie Antoinette. They graffitied vicious satirical cartoons about Caesar. What's different today is the Internet's mass distribution of this sort of derision and its relative permanence. Once commentaries go up on the Net, they're there to stay. And that arguably gives Internet commenters and bloggers more power than detractors from previous generations."

The truth is that on most sites only a tiny percentage of those who read a post actually comment and only a small percentage of comments fall into the vile category. Still, those leave-behinds get plenty of attention.

Ultimately, it's clear that it's the anonymity so specific to the Internet that enables people to express such venomous opinions. But the danger is that we--and even more so, the young people who grew up on the Web--may start to mistake hatefulness for wit and intelligence.

So is this the end of civilized behavior as we know it? Is there no limit to bad behavior on the Web? Many mainstream sites, facing the challenge of balancing the openness of the Internet with a need to be responsible to all readers, screen comments for foul language and violent threats. (At the Huffington Post, for example, human moderators keep watch.) But at the end of the day, it's impossible to monitor every comment or interaction on the Web. Appropriate behavior must be defined and policed by the community itself. One silver lining to snark's becoming mainstream, however, is that it's losing its novelty. As it becomes ubiquitous, it's also becoming old hat.

New forms of media--first movies, then television, talk radio and now the Internet--tend to challenge traditional codes of conduct. They flout convention, shake up the status quo and sometimes provoke outrage. Like Elvis Presley's pelvis in the early days of rock 'n' roll, sex and violence on cable television, and the crassness of talk radio, the erosion of manners on the Web isn't the first and certainly won't be the last threat to civilized behavior that comes our way.

So what lies ahead? What technological advances and what new media are poised to leap into the fray? No doubt, there will be something even faster and more compelling than the Internet. And, yes, this technology, too, will probably jeopardize manners and morals as we know them.

But I'm just not ready to dismiss the Web as the land of the boorish and ill-mannered. While there are sites doing big business in bad behavior, the vast majority are not. For every foul-mouthed rant, there are thousands of message boards where collaboration is the order of the day. There are forums that are empow-er-ing, uplifting and just plain fun. "Thanks to our bloggers and our community of commenters, we're engaged in a very real conversation," says Huffington. "But it takes work to make sure the conversation is stimulating and constructive."

In other words, it's harder to be smart than to be snide. Much like teaching your children to say please and thank you or to write proper thank-you notes, online decorum requires some effort.

So go ahead, log on and add your own voice to the mix. I'm afraid it may be a lost cause for any of us to push for proper punctuation and spelling, but we can still help create communities on the Web that reflect our values. An intelligent, thoughtful opinion can steer an online dialogue in a more productive and more insightful direction in an instant. I've seen it happen. Don't hand over the megaphone without a fight. Take a deep breath and give it a try.

First published in Town & Country magazine's "Social Graces" column, April 2008.

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