Private Eye | Onion Stew: Free Internet expression for all'even the jerks 

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As has been noted here numerous times, I like reader feedback. I take the phone calls, I read the letters, I try to decipher the comment boards and blog posts. I even ask strangers in cafes and bars what they think. Only once has someone picked up their ravioli and moved away. And once, the table next to mine was already having a heated discussion about how horrible this paper is when I bent my ear for a cleaner listen. I was momentarily mortified when the loudest in the bunch proclaimed that, “Whoever writes that column (pointing to this page) is full of it. My little girl’s a better writer.”

Like I said, I was mortified but only momentarily. Then, I started to laugh and told them, “Man, I totally agree. He’s a dick.” After a few chuckles, we went our separate ways, me with a full stomach, and they each carrying a City Weekly. I could give a whit that reader opinions or styles are different than my own, I’m always pleased that a great many take the time to be expressive about it. Yes, even the jerks. OK, some of the jerks.

It’s no secret I’m not a fan of anonymous online posters who thrive on attacks on reporters, authors, their fellow anonymous online posters or even their fellow unwary neighbors. I don’t like online vitriol and liken it to what it is: An electronic Ku Klux Klan where the timid store clerk by day transforms into an aggressive spewer of fear, bigotry and bias by night. More and more media sites are taking a serious look at what is occurring on their online pages. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a movement toward even more internal moderation of commentary on Websites or perhaps more stringent personal identity registration before being allowed to post. Those discussions are not just driven by the oafish result of snarky posters driving other viewers away, but by a cloudy legal landscape of what may or may not be libelous on the Internet. If so, I wonder if that would hearken the end of the Internet as we know it.

The Deseret News already moderates postings and determines which ones are allowed to appear online. The Salt Lake Tribune allows real-time posting, but comments deemed inappropriate by fellow readers are classified as “hidden.” Currently, City Weekly pretty much lets it fly as we don’t moderate, and our readers can’t give the Roman thumb of death or survival to posts or posters. I don’t think anyone likes being in the business of passing judgment on readers’ posts.

Objectionable reader posts on numerous Websites have disappeared into the ether. If so, it doesn’t matter why—it’s just the simple reality. It’s all part of the legal Burma Road that news sites navigate. Moderating reader Website commentary may expose a media outlet to legal exposure since it thus inherently accepts some risk for what is eventually posted online. Allowing anything and everything to go live without moderation theoretically alleviates the media outlet from being responsible for its online content. So far, the theory works, but Harvard, Yale and BYU don’t graduate all those law grads for nothing. Some smart lawyer is already prepping the bait that will catch the landmark libel damage decision that could change the face of the Internet.

There’s also the issue that publishers don’t like to hear about. Off color and objectionable posts are causing a growing number of online readers to click out and never come back. If those readers clicking out happen to make up the most desirable among a Website’s user demographics, guess who will win that one? Yes, they can figure that out, so the moral is keep the “cookies” away from publishers.

I hope it’s no secret that I’ve no problem at all with informative and engaging online anonymous commentary. I like the exchanges of ideas and viewpoints that occur online. And outside of wild personal speculation that is usually off the mark, I have no problem with online grammarians who think they can give me or anyone else writing for a living a belated writing lesson. That bus left the station, folks. Like the guys at the café, I share in the joke, and it ain’t on me. Besides, Mrs. English, Miss Stillman, Mrs. Wankier, Mrs. Bates, Miss Lambert, Miss Wollam and many others tried and failed to teach me the King’s English. However, to their credit, they were paid for their efforts. Unlike posters.

I know I harp on anonymous posting more than I should, and I know it’s not as important as the war in Iraq, the attack on Georgia, the cost of gas or the price of a private club membership. But from my desk, the world is getting dimmer not brighter, and among the hopes for a brighter world is an unfettered exchange of ideas. I’d hate to see the value of Internet user participation in First Amendment rights erode because of careless use. Unless the result is more people relying on plain old newspapers, that is.

Brevity remains, however. This week, a reader sent me an article from The Onion, which sums it up as well as can be, the money shot being, “What better way to take advantage of this incredible technology than to log onto the Internet and insult a complete stranger?” Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, co-founders of The Onion, are friends of mine, each now publishing an alternative paper like this one—Keck with The Stranger in Seattle and the Portland Mercury, Johnson at the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque. I think they’d find this piece pretty funny, too.

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