07/29/2008 01:56 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Flamers and Lurkers and Trolls, Oh My!

People can be so cruel, especially on the web. Sometimes I think it's the primary thing for which people use the Internet -- to exercise their dark side.

The Internet has made it possible for anyone to write, for anyone to share an opinion. And that's fabulous. The thing is, it doesn't necessarily get people involved in any kind of real discussion. Sure there's some talking. But I'm not convinced that there's enough listening or thinking or processing. The problem is that it's simply too easy to be hateful towards or dismiss someone you don't know, someone who you can't see, someone whose story, despite their bio and writing, is basically a mystery to you.

It's like some sort of open invitation -- "Let the flaming, lurking, and trolling begin."

People like that, of course. They can lash out and say whatever they like without having to stand by their words. There's no punishment, so to speak, for being hateful, vicious, or even stupid. Sure, someone's comments can be banned. But he or she can just sign up under a different email address with a different username. Yes, you can respond. But rarely have I seen someone retract a comment or article or blog unless it truly was based in error or clear misunderstanding. And even then, well, not so much. The Internet is convenient, but it lacks the very best part about human interaction, which is, well, human interaction.

Today's online communities are like the modern day answer to the classic French salon, where intellectuals gathered together to discuss the issues of the day. But they are lacking in one element that I am starting to think is paramount -- presence. People in online communities are there, but they also aren't. What that often results in is a complete lack of accountability.

I know I myself can all too often forget about the person behind the screen.

Forgive me for getting all touchy feely here. But the people we "talk to" online have mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; lovers and loved ones. They have thoughts and opinions and ideas. And while we may not all agree, we do all owe one another one simple thing: respect. Without it, there is no exchange of intellectual ideas. There is only blurting and bashing and the furthering of ignorance. And we all know we have no need for more of that.

Personally, I'd like to see a rebirth of the salon. I know. I know. We're all busy. We're all scattered across the globe. But what about just in our own communities? Just so we might learn or relearn the true art of discourse and then take those lessons back into our online life.

I do know one person who's testing out the theory. Former talk radio personality Rick Vanderslice has a podcast he calls "Conversations from the Buli Café." Once a week he picks a topic and a few people to get together in person to talk about it. And that's exactly what they do. Talk. No agenda. No prepared speeches. No name-calling. Just talking.

I like to think I'm well schooled in the art of discussion. I went to college and graduate school. I was on the debate team. I taught in a college classroom for nearly ten years. I do a couple of radio shows a week and talk to groups all across the country. Still, listening to Vanderslice's show, as a mere fly on the proverbial wall, is a powerful reminder of how different it sounds when people engage in a discussion in person rather than online. People take turns. They listen to one another in order to respond intelligently. They show one another respect. And what ensues is lively and informative.

I also had the chance to be on Vanderslice's show. It was fascinating how different it was from the many phone interviews I have done and the many online conversations I have had. The way we looked one another in the eye. The way we took turns. They way we considered one another's comments -- and feelings -- before speaking. I long to have that feel in a web discussion. But how do you convey a shrug or a pair of crossed arms or darting eyes when you are towns or states or countries away?

The web offers amazing opportunities, but it is also a dangerous invitation to throw all gentility out the window. It seems to me, if you wouldn't want your mom (read, family, friends, significant other, etc.) to read what you wrote -- you should think twice before writing it. My mother used to say, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." I'm not one for silencing people. But perhaps the new rule of thumb should be, "If you have something to say, try saying it nicely."

Jenny Block is the author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage