One of my intentions for 2008 is to stop reading the comments after stories in the online version of the Globe & Mail, our national newspaper. They showcase uninspired and uninspiring nonsense posted by people who seem, with a few exceptions, to be ill-informed, ethnocentric, regionally oriented and partisan conspiracy theorists hiding behind anonymity.  The outpouring of ignorance and intolerance is especially disturbing because these creatures are my fellow citizens. The news is bad enough; witnessing people at their least charitable makes it even worse.

In online conversations with people in other communities and other countries, and in visits to other online publications, I’ve learned that
Globe commenters are no worse than the characters who comment on other news websites. I’ve publicly wondered (and nobody has provided an answer) what newspapers think they gain by allowing comments (especially anonymous comments) on the stories they publish. Are advertisers really interested in attracting the eyeballs of these poor addled creatures? I’m all for democracy and freedom of speech, but why create a forum that permits and encourages anonymity and the promulgation of misinformation?

Today, in a visit to the web site of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, I discovered one theory  behind the trend to let the uninformed have
their say on issues ranging from immigration policy to celebrity shenanigans.  It seems Web 2.0 (or whatever we’re calling it today) allows people to be what the Project team labels “prosumers” – consumers creating content. Not only can they customize the information they receive, the theory goes, they can contribute to it, adding their voices to the conversation.

I don’t see too many signals that there’s a real conversation going on. It’s more like a bar fight.

Conversation implies that people turn towards each other and create some understanding of the situation – understanding from which both
parties can benefit.

The technology the news sites are using lets people reach others anywhere on the planet and share ideas.  It’s an opportunity for real conversation – real communication – across cultures, across borders, across the globe. It sounds like a great chance to promote the sort of dialogue and learning that creates understanding.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism lauds news sites that allow reader commentary. But where is the communication and conversation? Where is the thoughtful two-way dialogue that leads to a better-informed populace – if not a better world? Is providing the tools to have a conversation really useful if what ensues is just a commercial for ignorance? What am I missing? Besides the whole point of it all?