, Salem, MA


September 20, 2013

Watson: Online comments often a drag on debate

One of the most significant attributes of the Internet is its capacity to facilitate both constructive and destructive personal and group expression and behavior.

Just look at the wide array of social media communications “canvases” available — websites, blogs, email, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Reddit and Google+.

Examples of some of the positive consequences of all that digital possibility are easy to find. We are able to communicate with more people, at faster rates, with more efficient use of energy, and sometimes at lower costs, than before the creation of the Web.

The Internet and its related messaging tools allow us — as never before — to connect easily with people and ideas that previously would have remained hidden to us — or at least required formidable efforts to become exposed to.

Today, instantly, we can read a foreign newspaper, check the climate overseas, watch a video clip of an ongoing event or correspond with a person in a faraway country.

More easily than in the past, we can organize into groups, share opinions, raise awareness and plan activities. Use of the Internet has been integral in organizing everything from the Arab Spring to election campaigns to book clubs to car shows. At its best, the many facets of the Internet have increased human participation and engagement in an almost infinite number of endeavors.

Some of this participation has a dark side, however, and I’d like to focus on just one unfortunate aspect (of many possible). It’s an aspect that journalists observe constantly.

Most newspapers today print an actual, physical paper as well as an online version. Readers of old could always type a letter to the editor and mail it in, in the hope that it would be selected for publication. Today, at most papers, readers can simply type their comments — to any and every article or opinion piece in the paper, if they wish — onto their computer screens and the paper’s online technology will quickly and automatically display the comments (in a “blog”) alongside or below the relevant article or column.

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