In 1722 the New England Courant, a small Boston-based newspaper printed by James Franklin, received a series of letters to the editor from Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow who railed against life in the colonies. In reality Dogood was Franklin’s brother Benjamin, founding father. The future hundred-dollar-bill model used the nom de plume to evade the ire of this older brother.
And how far we’ve come. Letters to the editor have long been a staple of newspapers and magazines. However, as journalism transitions from print to web, letters have been replaced by comments, often anonymous and rarely intelligent, and a once-valid arena in the realm of public discourse has been conquered, not by the most reasoned and cogent arguments, but by the loudest and most persistent. Whereas before, piles of letters to the editor were once pruned down to save column inches, the web has unlimited space and moderation has, for the most part, been reduced to keeping out the most deliberately offensive trolls to maintain some semblance of decorum. Given the level of rhetoric on display on many of these websites, one can only imagine just how atrocious the exiled must be.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The internet sucks and is full of stupidity. It’s axiomatic.
Now to my own experience with internet hecklers. Two weeks ago as I was basking in the fickle glow of my brief internet stardom, when a project I had participated in spread beyond my immediate control and into the frum-Jewish blogosphere. Against both my friends’ advice and common sense I read all the comments. Fueled by equal parts voyeurism, ego pumping and self-flagellation, I read every argument, rant and rebuttal. Thank God, the positive commenters far out numbered the negative, but the negative were far more dedicated to their cause; and even positive support often inspired backlash from their counterparts.
It was far from my first time dealing with the e-haters. My shul has had more than it’s fair share of detractors, but this was my first time at the center of the maelstrom and it was harder to handle than I expected. Even the absurd guy who called me an islamist (that was just confusing) left a little mark. My favorite comment on an article combating racism said well “…black people steel..”
After a while I felt no other recourse than to turn off my phone, close my the Facebook window on my browser and dive head-long back in to the Netflix marathon I’ve been working on for weeks now. Then at the end of season 2 of Scrubs, I came to the conclusion that the anti-internet asifa of two years ago did have a point. There is a danger lurking in the internet, but their aim was just a few inches off. The real danger in the information superhighway isn’t pornography or other similarly questionable content, it’s gossip and hate mongering. While the boutique frum news sites do have a legitimate, albeit esoteric purpose, the comments section are useless and in no way contribute to the public dialogue. They’re a bastion of lashon hara(bad speech) and sinas chinam (baseless hatred) which are in no way positive Jewish values. With my own eyes and ears I have seen an heard the conversation spill out onto the shabbas table and into shul, where such politics surely have no place.
Case in point, last week local hero/pariah Meyer Seewald took to the web to explain the closing of his child/sexual abuse advocacy website Jewish Community Watch. Even after a reasonable explanation, the comments that followed below were a mix of wild non-empirical refutations and baseless accusations.
It would be easy to target the news sites frequented by religious Jews, but of course this is a ubiquitous internet issue. However, these sites surely bear a higher responsibility as members of a community. One would hope that they wouldn’t shirk these responsibilities in the interest of higher traffic (and consequently higher ad revenue).
After the first post on my own blog, I decided to take a laissez-faire/thunder-dome approach to comment moderation; let them duke it out and see what happens. But, a fellow blogger advised me otherwise. Part of being a blogger, he said, is not just writing, but being a community manager. This is advice that some of the Religious-Jewish news sites could surely take to heart if they truly wish to faithfully serve their communities.