When I started working for the Marquette Tribune a few years ago there was an upperclassman columnist who really knew how to get people talking. His columns were provocative, controversial and often about a hot topic on campus when they appeared on newsstands. This columnist was someone people loved to hate.
I would sit at Tribune staff meetings each week anxiously awaiting the Viewpoints budget so I could hear what type of controversial topic he had chosen to tackle next. Same-sex marriage? Check. Marquette administrative issues? Check. Affirmative action? Of course. Criticism of the way females on campus dressed? You bet.
The man may have been controversial, but he was highly informed in his attempt to do what any good columnist should – he stirred the pot.
No matter what he chose to write about, a pattern formed: the column would get published, angry comments would pour in and debates on social media would ensue.
This pattern was not unique, though, as it can be seen across the entire Internet on a daily basis.
Whether it’s on YouTube, ESPN during a big game or news sites, the Internet has become comparable to an elementary school playground – a place where bullying, name-calling and gossip is rampant. The only difference is that while elementary school children are punished for picking a fight (we all remember being in time out during recess), full-grown adults often escape such consequences with the “get out of jail free card” that is the Internet.
A current example of this is seen in CNN.com coverage of the recently-surfaced video of former Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing his players. If one solely reads the comments prior to reading the headline, it’s almost impossible to know what the story is even about.
The debate begins with how only “boys” play sports past their youth, whereas “men” get real jobs. From there, arguments about the economy arise and how the United States’ status as a world super power depends on whether or not universities make money on Division 1 athletics. Throw in an occasional “dummy” or “idiot” and the statement, “I didn’t see him chasing them with a chainsaw or bat … half the males over 30 probably had a coach like him growing up. America seems to be becoming a tad delicate” and you have the gist of the comments section.
Even something as adorable and inspiring as the popular “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You” video on YouTube can’t escape the wrath of online commenters. The video is called “ignorant” and discussion turns to issues of race, politics and comparing the child in the video to current U.S. President Barack Obama.
Locally, this year’s Marquette Student Government election has produced plenty of negative commentary on social media and the Tribune’s website. In an election that should be about platforms, issues and the student body’s future, the Internet has served as a stage for personal attacks, hurt feelings and anger geared toward the administration.
Criticism is a wonderful thing as long as it’s constructive and well-intended. I’ve personally been criticized many times for my viewpoints, and although there may be an initial urge to Facebook-stalk the commenters or respond negatively, there’s an ultimate value in realizing that the criticism obviously occurs for a reason.
For instance, to the individual out there who believes I have no meaningful opinion other than that expressed in my column about the Steubenville sexual assault case: Thank you for the heads up, and in some ways, you have a point.
Some of my recent columns have been far too fluffy – nobody wants to read about my spring break plans or personal issues (except for my mom, of course, who is keeping an eye on you, Mr. Anonymous Commenter). Readers want something meaningful, well thought out and worth their time. I recognize that at times, I haven’t always provided such content, and I plan to work a lot harder to make my columns more worthwhile going forward.
The beauty of the Internet is that it keeps society informed while equally giving everyone a voice and means to be heard. It becomes a problem, however, when that amazing opportunity is abused.
We all know that a computer allows us to hide behind a screen and say whatever we want, but that isn’t an excuse for speaking without thinking. We have responsibilities and ultimately, there are still consequences reinforced by Google searches and employment background checks that not even anonymous postings can protect us from.
The ability to comment online is a privilege and discussion-enhancing tool if used in a passionate, interested and educated manner. But in order to maintain such a privilege, it’s our job to ensure that the ability to hide behind a screen doesn’t mask us from the effects our negative comments can have on others in everyday life.
Brooke Goodman is a senior studying political science and journalism. Email email@example.com with anything you’d like her to write about.