Clark Hoyt is the Public Editor of the New York Times (a position created in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal). His column this weekend, "Civil Discourse, Meet the Internet," began with the following disclaimer:
WARNING: This column contains rude and objectionable language not normally found in the pages of this newspaper but seen surprisingly often on its Web site.
As the title and warning suggest, Hoyt's column details the messy side of web interactivity. Most of the time, this is confined to boorishness. But the convention of anonymous posting in the blogosphere is particularly conducive to both unsupported claims and personal attacks. The traditional approach to journalism is being challenged, and informed by, so-called citizen journalism.
From Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, on down, executives and editors of The Times use similar language to describe their goal: they want the newspaper's Web site to nurture a healthy, "civil discourse" on the topics of the day.
As Hoyt notes, however, "the real Internet world often falls far short." He cites the challenges that vex Kate Phillips, editor of The Caucus, nytimes.com's political blog:
...Phillips said she struggles sometimes with the "intolerance" and "vitriol" she sees in some comments—so much so that on rare occasions "I almost wish we could go back to the days when we never heard their voices."
The most challenging ethical problems often require forbearance in the face of unruly, unexpected or undignified behavior. Yet, ethics is a normative pursuit, one whose ultimate purpose is to distinguish between the acceptable and unacceptable. Some have argued for an internet conversation ungoverned by standards. While you can't yell "Fire!" in a theater, you're still pretty free to write whatever you like online.
Is this what we want from the internet? Is this all we want from it?