In May, the National Journal changed its online commenting policy, citing that “for every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks – not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name calling imaginable.” The site turned off privileges to non-NJ members and directed those wanting to share their opinions to either Tweet reporters or email them directly. They could also submit a traditional letter to the editor.
You know, old-school style. Back when readers had to pause to gather their thoughts and review facts before unleashing their opinions onto public forums. When they had a chance to calm down before committing their words to the page. You know, the good old days.
After reading the National Journal’s explainer on why they were updating their policy, I wrote a few sentences lauding the decision and before publishing them, I did what many people do after reading a story online – I skimmed the comments accumulating below, saw the trolls had been there first, and deleted my words. Because civil discourse appears to be lying in a ditch somewhere, unconscious and bleeding out.
The Internet has given us many gifts. Like online billing. Stephen Colbert episodes on demand. And cat videos. But it all comes at cost. Suddenly it feels as though everyone is shouting and no one is really listening. For instance, the other day my dad and I casually sparred about politics on a link my husband’s grandmother posted on her Facebook page. (A mistake I realize now and realized then even as I was posting). However, it ended amicably with us agreeing we could find more common ground than chasms between us. Then today I received a notification that the thread was continued.
A stranger to us both had carpet bombed the conversation and brought up her views on abortion, a topic that was not on the table prior. I rolled my eyes and thought this is why we can’t have nice things. And is a perfect example why the National Journal closed comment sections. Productive conversation is derailed by those who aim to steer it into the fire.
I first encountered this population as a reporter at a small community newspaper. I would arrive at work every day to see my phone blinking red. I approached messages with caution because occasionally one would be someone yelling about something not germane to what I had written the night before. Still. I would pick up the phone and call them back. Most voiced their surprise that it was my voice on the other end, and more than once, apologized saying, they were just upset and my voicemail was where they decided to take out their frustration. I can’t imagine what would have appeared at the bottom of my stories had online commenting been available at the time.
I write this rather rambling post today because lately I’ve been thinking about an art project by a young photographer from New Hampshire named Greg Hindy. Last July, he committed himself to a yearlong vow of silence with the aim of walking across the United States and photographing what he saw using a 4×5 field camera. Hindy wrote on the project’s website that he would abstain from “just about all forms of entertainment other than the thoughts inside my head.”
He explained his rationale for the project in a video made the day he departed confessing he wasn’t entirely sure why he felt he had to do it, but that “it has the potential to be something really meaningful to me, and maybe for other people … I don’t know. I want to know more about my feelings on these things. To throw myself out of my comfort zone and learn how to respond.”
During the more than 6,000 miles Hindy weaved through the country, the 22-year-old did not listen to music on his iPhone, Tweet his thoughts, check in to each state he visited on Foursquare, or Instagram his convenience store meals. He snapped photos using black and white film and communicated with people he encountered using a pen and notepad. Hindy completed his amazing trek yesterday.
His father wrote on the project’s Facebook page that Greg (understandably) wanted his first words to be kept private. Hindy hasn’t yet updated the website. He has written he will post another video to the site to conclude the project. Perhaps he is still figuring out what he wants to relay to the world about his experience. Perhaps along the way he figured out he doesn’t really care to share it with anyone ever. And that’s okay too. Because right now, I think that this silence is the most interesting of all.