Almost every blog, social networking site, online magazine or newspaper has at least one thing in common: a forum for comments and discussion. Talking back to media is not necessarily new; people have been submitting letters to the editor for about as long as news outlets have been in existence. What is new about online comment is its permanence.
When you are creating an online profile or posting a piece of your writing, it is of the utmost importance to remember that the content is out there forever. It is not like graffiti that can be painted over or washed off. I think that for the most part, people are fairly responsible and hold themselves to some degree of accountability, but the opportunity is there for anyone to post a nasty anonymous comment and have it published permanently, which happens too often. This aligns with the spirit of free speech–whether something is hateful, subversive or innovative, you can say it–but I question whether Internet users are catching up to the level of responsibility they need to have when publishing comments and content.
I agree with Bob Garfield when he says there is a difference between commentary and vandalism, and we need to teach people that difference. The advent of the Honesty Box on Facebook is used by some to declare a secret crush on a user, by others as a conduit for cyberbullying. It is up to the user to do the right thing.
Safe and responsible use of the Internet is everyone’s responsibility. The ability to publish original content is not going anywhere soon, at least in the United States, and so it’s up to us to talk to each other about accountability and standards of decency. It has been suggested that perhaps comments sections need to be regulated, but to me, this seems to be the equivalent of confiscating someone’s illegal handgun when there’s a knife shop down the block. There is always going to be a way to be mean, cowardly and irresponsible, and we didn’t need the Internet to teach us how to act that way. The Internet is nothing if not open and free, and I do believe the positives of a free Internet outweigh the negatives. The best solution is to hold ourselves and each other to the golden rule of do unto others as you would have others do unto you.