YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Road rage on the information superhighway

The Web-enabled world of public discourse is instant -- and sometimes vicious.

October 21, 2006|MEGHAN DAUM

BACK IN THE DAY (say, the early '90s), filmmakers could make controversial movies, authors could write books with unsympathetic narrators and newspaper columnists could say things not everyone agreed with, and people had no choice but to seethe in silence. If they were really motivated, they could get a piece of paper, scribble down their thoughts, shell out for postage and hope that whatever generic address they dug up would eventually lead the missive to its intended party.

Today, thanks to the Internet, everyone's a critic. "American Idol" wants to hear from the folks at home, and so, apparently, does every media company and retailer on Earth. Read an article in an online publication and you will find public retorts with word counts that exceed the original document tenfold. Buy a book on and you will find not only reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Amazon but, often, dozens if not hundreds of customers' reviews. Frequently fraught with misspellings and grammatical errors, these reviews can express a level of vitriol you're unlikely to find in printed material, mostly because no editor would leave it unedited, no publisher would publish it and no professional reviewer, upon waking up the next morning, would want to be held to it.

But anyone with a hard drive is pretty much on to that game. Moreover, anyone who has a public voice, like a columnist or a commentator, should be prepared to see her words amplified and re-amplified by the Internet, often to the point of unintelligibility.

In recent days, I've been newly reminded of the way the Internet has altered our ideas about public discourse. Last week in this space, I suggested that student political activists need to organize more effectively to have an impact and, by the way, avoid violence. That column was excerpted and discussed on a political blog called Patterico's Pontifications, which was then linked to other blogs. In a high-tech version of the telephone game, my piece was quickly engulfed in so much rage-driven commentary that even those who did manage to read it in its entirety seemed unable to take my meaning as anything but the opposite of what it actually was. And because the Los Angeles Times now lists e-mail addresses for reporters and columnists at the end of an article, a lot of those blog readers and contributors decided to write and show me who's boss.

I'll defend anyone's right to call me, in one contributor's words, "a moral leper." But the e-mails I received revealed a layer of rage way over the top, even for the blogosphere. The "critique" -- some of it political, some of it personal; some of it valid, some of it totally irrelevant -- arrived in my inbox accompanied by obscenities and threats you'd be hard-pressed to find on most blogs. One individual from Virginia expressed hope that I'd be "burned at the stake as a [expletive] witch" and called me a word that is so unprintable my editors won't even let me tell you what it rhymes with.

Now, there's a part of me that enjoys getting hate mail. It's fun to forward the better ones to my friends, and the really stellar examples often find their way to my refrigerator door. But the brush-fire effect of the blogs, combined with the fact that my e-mail address was closer at hand than, say, a beer in the fridge, resulted in an expression of rage that I have to believe is unique to this era.

When "everyone has a voice," name-calling and petty insults aren't just socially sanctioned, they're almost obligatory. In a Webless world, would any of these people have bothered to mail me a letter saying I should be burned at the stake? After composing the letter and looking at it in ink, would they really have wasted a stamp on me? Perhaps a few, but I suspect most would have yelled at the wall and been done with it.

I have no beef with most blogs or the communities they engender. And, for the record, Patterico blogger Patrick Frey, upon hearing about my foul-mouthed epistlers, wrote to me saying, "I unequivocally condemn people sending you mail like that."

What bothers me is the way "interactive culture" has given way to a general lack of accountability for the written word. There are plenty of intelligent voices on the Web, but too often "shared opinions" becomes a euphemism for insane spewing.

Whether it's a customer review, a screed on a message board or a litany of choleric letters in an Internet magazine, the balance of power between the original material (presumably researched, written, edited, rewritten and fact-checked) and the ensuing, knee-jerk discussion might be a little too "equal" for everyone's good. Incendiary feedback attracts eyeballs, but there's something to be said for signing your name to your work, and I don't mean with a screen name.

To be sporting, I wrote back to my correspondent in Virginia and respectfully asked why, instead of engaging in a debate on the issues, he called me the unprintable word. He answered with a rather lengthy missive about free speech, then called me the word again. My subsequent e-mails to him bounced back.

Los Angeles Times Articles