Internet hard to rein in

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The internet. It's amazing how dramatically this phenomenon has changed the way we communicate.

Over the past decade, it's gone from a novelty to a necessity. My mother communicates with her seven grown children via email, and I communicate with my grown nieces and nephews via Facebook. As a newspaper, we communicate via our free website and our paid, complete online edition.

Like every sea change, some good things come of a massive adjustment in the way we communicate. Some not so good things happen as well.

On our website, we offer the ability for folks to comment on stories, ask questions, get a conversation started. This kind of free-form give and take can be a good thing. Too often, and I've seen it on a lot of sites, a small group of extraordinarily negative people with lots of time on their hands hijacks what should be a great thing and makes it their personal billboard for their petty biases and general malaise.

Generally, the comments feature complaints against: the city government, the school leaders, the federal officials, or local law enforcement. Instead of doing what they are doing, they need to: CREATE JOBS! according to some folks. Doesn't seem to matter what the topic is, some folks argue about job creation in relationship with any story. I keep expecting a "CREATE JOBS" post on a basketball story, or a preschool Christmas program photo online.

This past week, however, I saw a really great thing. Someone who actually HAD THE FACTS responded to some of those comments and complaints. He did so in a calm, rational, educated manner. And, he added to the information we provided in the story and actually helped to nurture the give and take ideal of such a forum.

Curtis Dean of SMU - you rock!

Curtis talked about the energy savings that we can expect from the new streetlights in downtown. He talked about why they are set up in the configuration they are. He discussed the funding streams tapped to pay for the project. He treated the other posters with respect and a genuine desire to answer their questions.

That's what we designed the forum to do.

Some question why we allow postings on our website. They point to the negative nature of some of those commenting. My response is that the future of communications involves such give and take. I remind folks that it's generally those unhappy with things who make noise. If we agree with a story or an opinion, we don't often make any comment. That, I'm afraid, is the nature of the beast. The blogosphere is made up of such interactive content. Heck, my fear is that so many people take blog for fact. Crabby folks posting to a website are just that - crabby folks posting to a website. Persons who, without proper training or proper reporting methods, take to the web with their "news stories" are far more dangerous. I worry about those folks who believe that Stephen Colbert, or Glen Beck are news people.

We keep an eye on our website, deleting comments that cross the line, and banning the particularly offensive posters. We leave some up that we personally disagree with, or that we know are playing way too free and easy with the facts. Why? Because we trust the others involved in our online community will set them straight. Most of the time, that's exactly what happens.

The internet is a pretty fluid medium, and like everyone else, we're figuring it out as we go along.