Saturday, November 13, 2004

Dr Jekyll and Mr Web

Published on 01-Apr-2001, at "" (a business and technology Israeli site). Translated from Hebrew by "".

You know those "advanced" theatre spectacles where the actors leave the stage and mingle with the audience? They are considered experimental, because they smash the glass wall distancing the players from the spectators, transforming the audience into a contributor. Art, considered
to be a higher form that only the most talented can create, embraces its watchers.

Art doesn't have much in common with journalism, but the element of distance is one common denominator. Journalism creates content - news items and op-eds - which the "audience" sits back and reads. There is no real dialog. Letters to the editor are a window for chosen, edited views
of readers. Until the advent of Internet, that is: The Web has given the broad audience a way to participate in the journalistic medium for the first time.

The first phase is the talk-back, where readers can respond freely to items appearing on the news website (with minimal censorship in extreme cases). Moreover, e-letters from readers are saved in the archive as part of the original piece.

The readers have no commitments. They don't have to be fair or nice or helpful. They don't have to provide their real names but can hide behind symbols while freely slinging virtual mud with howls of glee.

What I don't get is the repeat visitors, who return to the scene of their crime to unsheathe their pen again. If you didn't like it the first time, why did you come back?

Well, I could think of a few reasons:

Sirs, I say @&*()&)(!!!!

1. Some readers think they can improve the quality of content on the site by imposing pressure on the writer/editor.

Well, there is any number of opinions out there, but there's a difference between enviously penning venom and offering constructive criticism.

Use of vulgar, violent language neither induces the writer to mend his ways or to consider the content of the critique seriously. Moreover, as the responses are saved in the archive together with the source article, a hate-letter besmirches the very site the reader is trying to improve.

Such users have to understand and accept their indirect responsibility for the quality of the site. Constructive criticism complete with sources is the way to achieve influence over the writer and editor.

What is man after all?
2. People with vested interests have been known to praise or curse, as relevant. Naturally, they will take all possible precautions to avoid exposing their real identity. Revelation would expose their cynical manipulation of the public dais. But after all, what is man but the sum of his interests?

Can I pour my mental junk here?
3. Then there are anonymous readers unable to strangle the site's creators, who releasing their frustrations against the inert site. People are more restrained when their identity is known. Anonymity is protection, a chance to behave irresponsibly and without rein. Internet created the
ultimate place for people to put on masks, put off their shackles of propriety and let go their passions.

Unfortunately, said passions usually include a lot of negative emotion that couldn't drain off otherwise. Now their venting can be done through an alternative personality not associated with their real selves. How convenient.

I have no message for these people, except to recommend that they consult a therapist, although it will cost them more than logging on and taking off into cyberspace.

Some day, maybe a way will be found to give surfers a benefit for writing a talk-back using their real names, to encourage more self-possessed debate.

I do not write on behalf of I write out of a sense of pain at the improper use certain readers made of the talk-back option. I hope that at least some of the readers will agree and change their attitude. You have the opportunity to make a difference for the first time. The way you use this opportunity will share the cultural environment in which you live, for better or worse.


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