Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why Are the People Who Comment on Newspaper Web Sites So Nasty?

I was interviewed this morning by the social services reporter at a large Southwestern daily newspaper for an article about whether "all publicity is good publicity." She was working on a follow-up column to an article she had written about a local charity that had an attention-getting and novel fundraising idea: The group helps dig wells in a Third World nation; volunteers were raising money for their work by refusing to shower until all participants had reached their fundraising goals.

I love this idea. There's a strong (pun intended) incentive here for friends, family, and co-workers to donate to the organization. In addition, the stunt has a direct connection to the cause -- volunteers won't use water to shower until people help them bring water to those who don't have it.

The reporter is writing a follow-up story because of the overwhelming volume of mean and nasty comments to her first article on her newspaper's Web site. Was the negative chatter going to hurt the charity? Is this a backlash? We talked a bit about my opinion but also about why that was happening and why there were so many comments on such a non-controversial topic. I suspect that with an increase in the unemployment rate, there are more unhappy people with enough time on their hands to take out their frustration on a group of Gen Yers who are trying to help make the world a better place. And then there's the anonymity that newspapers give their online commenters. People will say all kinds of things when they are using a fictional persona.

What's your take on this? Why do you think that so many online commenters think that attacking the subjects of a story is appropriate? Do you think they'd say something like "Get your stinking butts back to Seattle" in a face-to-face encounter?

I'm interested in learning more about the reasons for this anti-social behavior, but understanding it won't change my patterns -- I still won't read the comments on my newspaper's site. I rarely learn anything useful from them other than alternative spellings for "imbecile."


Nandi said...

I think anonymity is certainly part of it, but it doesn't seem to be the whole picture. For some reason, our society seems much more willing to tolerate rudeness than it used to. And not just tolerate it, but exalt it. Think about those so-called "reality" TV shows.

Sandra Beckwith said...

Excellent point, Nandi. For example, I am getting a lot fewer "thank you" waves when doing something nice for another driver....