It's fascinating that some correspondents and posters thought my blog rose to the level of a firing offense, and they encouraged others to write to management here to try to get me canned. It brings to mind Jimmy Breslin's famous line about having freedom of speech, but most people being afraid to use it. Now I understand why. If this kind of mild stuff stirs such ire, one can only imagine what would have transpired if I'd have ventured a political opinion.
Shockingly, several people who sent epithet-filled e-mails directly to me (as opposed to posting on the blog's forum) signed their complete names and some even included their job titles and corporate affiliations! (!) I'd don't have to tell you that no one calls you a jerk anymore; people begin with the "a" word and quickly progress to "f," followed by comments on one's personal appearance and wishes for a prolonged and painful death.
I believe that the Web should be an open place for free exchange between content producers (we used to be called "journalists," I seem to remember) and readers. However, what's scary is that anytime anything comes along which really stirs a response, a big mess ensues. Consider that the Washington Post had to shut its forums briefly in January 2006 when readers took issue with a post by the paper's ombudsman. And the Los Angeles Times had to pull the plug on its editorial wiki experiment in 2005 because some readers were "flooding the site with inappropriate material."
These are just two of the more easily recalled incidents. We've had other more innocous problems, such as teens using forums as instant-message boards and comment boards being bombarded with spam.
What's the solution? The problems of spam and lost MySpace users have at least partially effective technological solutions. Unfortunately, the fact that many people say they want to hear opposing viewpoints, but really don't, is a tougher nut to deal with.
Asking people to be civil is as much of a nonstarter online as it is in Congress. Going forward, I suspect many Web-based organizations will have to develop thicker skins if they really want to become online gathering places, because anything that inspires interest also can spark complaints.
Referring to the failure of digital-rights management, security expert Bruce Schneier has pointed out that "Data is inherently copyable, just as water is inherently wet." I would extend that to the Internet by saying that "the Web is inherently rude." And anyone who doesn't like it, well, you know what they can do.