The other day, oaoa.com made the switchover to a public comment system based, primarily, on the social media giant Facebook.
For the most part, I’m happy with it. As a practical matter, there have been less comments by volume, but the sound-to-noise ratio of what’s come in has been considerably higher; as people adjust to New Things, hopefully that will continue.
The shift represents the end of an era for the website, and may be part of the ongoing trend to “publicify” the Internet, largely because of social media.
For many years, you used the Internet to be someone else, or at least to be able to say and do things that would have no immediate consequence on your daily, physical-interaction life. So few people used the Internet in its early days, how could anything done there matter? You could talk to strangers about a niche interest that wasn’t available elsewhere, or complain about your boss and coworkers and family where no one you worked with would hear about it, or be able to trace it back to you if they did.
That’s not the case anymore.
Increasingly, people’s virtual representations are extensions of themselves, not separate entities with independent concerns and rules of behavior.
Part of that is just the “growing up” of the Internet. You didn’t used to be able to do anything serious or respectable online, while now people can do all sorts of legitimate and official things without ever stepping foot outside their homes. Or rather, they can do it on their phones as they do something else. (RIP Steve Jobs.)
It’s useful to protrude a portion of yourself onto the Net, to be there holding a place when you can’t be there yourself. And that protrusion, when actually, temporarily inhabited by your consciousness, is likely to be more civil, tactful and mindful of consequences than if it were something you could just leave behind and step away from untouched. The virtual world no longer disappears when you close the window to it.
That’s a sad thing, in part, because anonymity has a multitude of truly important and useful functions. It’s sad because candor and tact don’t need to come at the other’s expense, although they often do.
On our site, we’ve retained the ability to log in using emails other than Facebook so that people who really do need anonymous protection (whistleblowers, victims of domestic abuse, people afraid of what a superior might think of their political opinions) can have their say as well. It’s important to have that, too, and it will never go completely away in substance if not form.
As much as the term “social media” gets thrown around, the 500-pound gorilla in the room, Twitter, is Facebook’s exact opposite, and many people endeavor successful to be entirely anonymous when posting messages of 160 characters or less. Most websites really don’t care who you really are. Thank God.
But I still say it’s progress to have more people signing their names to their opinions about one another. Any coward can be a critic; it takes a much stronger person to stand naked of pseudonym’s protection and face the repercussions of that criticism as it comes back.
With this change, oaoa.com is basically full of people writing letters to the editor. And that’s good because for a community newspaper, the conversation with the public is the most valuable resource we in the newsroom have.