Head v. Tail

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Last night, as I watching the Sawx come one step closer, my mom asked me whether I thought that the Internet had made things better. I don't remember the context of the question, but I do recall my ambivalence in answering it. And later on last night, I came across the following story, collected concisely here by Jeff Jarvis:

S., who lives in San Francisco, sends an email to A., a political correspondent for the New York Times. That email contains a particularly injudicious remark wishing harm upon A.'s "kid." D., a colleague of A.'s, is offended, and writes a Sunday column (reg. required), publishing this remark (against the wishes of S.) and naming both S. and identifying his home. S.'s reward for this remark, as a result: hordes of nasty emails, hateful phone calls, and a lasting effect far out of proportion with a private statement, however originally hateful it was:

What won't go away for years, if ever, are the results of the Google search of my name every prospective employer, professional colleague, new friend or potential spouse is likely to conduct in the future. When you search my name now, you learn right away that the Public Editor of the New York Times called me a coward and a despicable person incapable of consideration of others.

That's from the "open letter" that S. has posted to his own site, where you can also find out the names of the principals here. As ugly as his original comment was, S. is right to note that, instead of taking the high road (ostensibly the point of D.'s column), D. has traumatized S.'s children and potentially damaged his reputation, job prospects, and life for a long time to come, a pretty steep price for a private email composed in the heat of anger. S.'s conclusion is worth reading:

Let me close by pledging that, henceforth, I shall write all of my e-mails as though they will be published in the New York Times. I shall write them with the care, consideration and respect for civil discourse that one would expect from the public editor of the nation's leading newspaper. I will write them as though I am writing a respected column that will be read by people around the world, and that will be captured in Google forever. My parting request to you, [D.], should you choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.

Jarvis has another post on this as well, one that deplores the fact that incivility simply breeds more incivility. Also of interest is Chris Nolan's reflection on the possibility that there's a marked difference between the ways that people on each coast have taken up communications and connectivity in the past few years. Nolan's conclusions are certainly overgeneralized, but her initial premise, that people in different geographic regions will take up technology in different ways, is a sound one, and one that will be a source of frequent misunderstandings and cautionary tales for years to come, I suspect. If even part of what she suggests is true, it's another example of how our social adoptions of technology trail well behind our ability to produce new technologies themselves.

And the original question? It's going to take any number of stories like S.'s or David Hailey's before the kind of civility that Jarvis asks for will emerge. It's kind of like having to touch the stove and burning a finger before one will really believe that it's hot. We're still very much in the finger-burning stage of development with respect to the Internet, I think, and that can be both good and bad.


I don't know much about blogs or bloggers, but I do know about people's penchant for rumoring and conspiracy theorizing. In the past most all discourse was public in one sense or another and so there was a natural filter or a hesitance to be extreme. There were consequences to being a jerk. With the internet and blogging, anonymity is available and those constraints are gone. It is easy to rant with no repurcussions. And most people ranting are not doing it to have a discussion, so they could care less about damage to discourse due to incivility.
Also, this election is extremely emotional, to both sides, so reasoned discussions are far and few between.
As far as S is concerned, he's apparently a lawyer whose job is to use words, so his extremely hateful verbiage is all the less excusable, as are his refusal to apologize and his attempt to place the primary responsibility for the whole incident on the media.

Moose, as an attorney yourself, you should know how important it is to get your facts straight before you you start saying ugly things in public about people you don't know.


"...I decided that someone who goes out at night and paints a swastika on the door of a synagogue doesn't want it written about either," says Okrent. "There have to be consequences."


Really bizarre stuff
10/22/2004 2:07:35 PM

From KEVIN ALLMAN, editor, WHERE New Orleans: Does Daniel Okrent really think that sending a nasty e-mail is the equivalent of painting a swastika on the door of a synagogue?

That's really the most bizarre statement he's made in his short, bizarre tenure at the Times. More bizarre than when he went off on the Tony Awards. More bizarre than his self-interview about his vacation. And more bizarre than his boast about spending the whole month of August getting his news only from the Times. (Okay, maybe not more bizarre than that last one...)

"There have to be consequences," Okrent told Business Week, and he appointed himself to dole out those consequences by printing the blogger's name in his column. The question, to me, isn't whether Okrent did the right thing, but why the New York Times' "readers' representative" seems to think he's supposed to be critiquing the readers and not the paper.


See also:


Sorry about the strange formatting, but when I looked at it in 'preview," it was all lumped together. The above looked fine in preivew but is all spread out in the post. sorry.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on October 21, 2004 3:35 PM.

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