USA Today NewsFlash: 'Rudeness, Threats Make the Web a Cruel World'

July 31st, 2007 10:55 AM

In light of Matt Sheffield's latest post, I found it a bit funny that this article is featured on the front page of this morning (see screenshot to the right).

SAN FRANCISCO — Brooke Brodack remembers her first online "hater."

Nearly two years ago, the person posted rude comments about a video she had posted on YouTube, says Brodack, 21, of San Francisco, whose videos show her lip-syncing and creating characters. "It was shocking to me. Why would someone want to be so mean for no reason?"

Why, indeed? Nasty comments, sometimes even death threats, have become ubiquitous on virtually any website that seeks to engage readers in discussion.

"Ur ugly u suk and u should die," says a typical comment beneath one of Brodack's many videos. Such vulgar messages have inspired heated discussions, and video responses, on YouTube.

Reporter Janet Kornblum later brought the topic around to how mainstream media Web sites have taken to banning comments after persistent problems:

Several newspapers, wary of outrageous posts by readers, have banned all comments during major news events. That's what happened in April at The Roanoke Times in Virginia, which shut down a message board it had set up to discuss the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech.

Initial comments were "very civil," says online editor John Jackson, but they quickly turned ugly. "All of a sudden, we started noticing the nastier comments."

He can't recall exactly what they said but remembers they were laced with profanity. "It was really a no-brainer decision to take it down because it really crossed the line so terribly," Jackson says.

At The Orange County Register, editors had to remind readers that the rules of discussion required civil conversation after several nasty and often profane comments were posted in response to a March story about an obese woman who had given birth to a baby she hadn't known she was carrying.

Perhaps this opens up a question for the Web site editors/content managers for prominent blogs. Banning comments altogether doesn't generally serve the interests of bloggers nor help cater to a loyal audience, and it isn't good for traffic numbers. It stifles conversation and puts another barrier between the producers and consumers of the content.

But are comments really ever necessary for posts that simply relay news about the health of a public official or political figure?

Let's face it, there's little if any real policy discussion that is germane to news of a Supreme Court justice suffering a seizure. The comments invariably range from the benign wishful thoughts and prayers to the grossest of death wishes. Neither serve to further legitimate debate, and the former are to be expected of all people of good will, regardless of political stripe.

Or is it likely that some blog editors leave those comments threads open precisely because they are an outlet of rage for the more radical elements of their loyal audience?