Friday, February 20, 2009

How the Web Was Captured by Sauron

In a post delightfully headlined "Death by Moron," blogger Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle rips into the trolls, orcs, goblins and other repugnant

Posted By on Fri, Feb 20, 2009 at 7:57 AM

In a post delightfully headlined "Death by Moron," blogger Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle rips into the trolls, orcs, goblins and other repugnant Tolkienesque life forms that infest Internet forums.

"Here is my strange confession: I miss my hate mail," he begins. "It's an odd thing to admit, but in a perverse sort of way, I actually miss the wretched river, the rancid flow of puerile, nasty, sickeningly homophobic email I used to receive on a regular basis from the ultra-right and the Christian right and the Mormon right and the Bush-impaired whenever I would post a friendly, pointed column full of tangy liberal attitude. Which is, of course, all of them."

Where did the hate mail go? It turned into hateful commentary on websites, of course. And it's more wretched, rancid, nasty and sickening than ever.

"I was, for years, an enthusiastic advocate of the egalitarian, free-for-all, let's-level-the-playing field aspect of the Web," Morford writes. "More voices! More feedback! More participation! Bring it on!

"Not anymore. As I've mentioned before, I now tend to agree with 'West Wing' creator Aaron Sorkin, who said, 'Nothing has done more to make us dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the Internet.' Hyperbole? Not by much."

He goes on to observe, as The Eye also has, that the anonymity of the Web "tends to bring out the absolute worst in people, the meanest and nastiest and least considerate. Something about not having to reveal who you really are caters to the basest, most unkind instincts of the human animal. Go figure.

"Thoughtful discourse? Humorous insight? Sometimes. But mostly it's a tactless spectator sport. It's about being seen, about out-snarking the previous poster, about trying to top one another in the quest for ... I'm not sure what. A tiny shot of notoriety? The feeling of being 'published' on a major media site? Or is it the thrill that can only come from hurling a verbal Molotov at the Great Satan of "corporate media," and then running away like a snorting 8-year-old? All of the above?"

Bend, despite its rep as a nice, friendly small town, is far from immune to this sort of thing, as even five minutes spent randomly reading the comments on the BendBubble2 blog will demonstrate.

One of the most disheartening side effects of the troll infestation is that a sort of Gresham's Law applies to Web discussions: Bad comments drive out good comments. The trolls drive away participants who have something worthwhile to say.

As Morford puts it, "the coherent voices are, by and large, increasingly drowned out by the nasty, the puerile, the inane, to the point where, unless you're in the mood to have your positive mood ruined and your belief in the inherent goodness of humanity stomped like a rainbow flag in the Mormon church, there's almost no point in trying to sift through it anymore. The relentless nastiness is, quite literally, sickening."

The solution, Morford says, is easy: Don't allow anonymous posting. Require everybody who wants to participate in on-line discussions to identify him- or herself.

But that'll never happen, he concedes, because those anonymous posters generate website traffic, and heavy traffic is what the advertisers want to see. They don't care about quality, only quantity.

The only hope Morford holds out is the slim one that the novelty of anonymous posting will wear off "relatively soon." The Eye, alas, cannot share his hope. The human capacity for nastiness has no limits.

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