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BBQ with Jekyll, online with Hyde

by Chris Lowrance

Most prefer the term “blogosphere.” I call it Greensboro’s great big Spite Machine. There’s only one time of the year where the latter is less accurate.

If you haven’t heard of it and didn’t read Brian Clarey’s column last week, Converge South is an annual gathering of bloggers and other tech heads. Besides presentations and breakout sessions, there are walking tours of our fair Gate City and blogger David Hoggard’s very excellent house party/BBQ.

I only attended the BBQ. Sorry, folks.

But even that taught me a very valuable lesson about blogging, and about the Greensboro blogosphere in general. I saw men who have threatened to beat people’s asses in comment threads greet them with a hug and a handshake. People who have called others bald-faced liars and campaigned to cost them their jobs passed the very same beer. Between shoveling down some of the best pork I’ve ever had and huddling as close as I could to the fire pit, I matched faces to hateful comments and vicious posts.

Man, in person you people are nothing like you are on the web. I don’t think that’s good.

To be fair, most of the attendees I met were from the calmer, more neutral blogs, and I’m not going to name names here. But my own experience matches that of close friends, who describe having whole folders of e-mail from particular bloggers threatening to assault them and yet who treat them like a sibling in person.

Better observers than I have written about the phenomenon of internet rudeness, but what strikes me the most about Greensboro’s blogging community is that you all know each other, in person. Most of you have met or talked on a phone at some point, and I’ve never heard an instance of a verbal or physical fight on the scale of what you threaten from the other end of a broadband connection.

Is the face-to-face politeness just a mask over your seething rage? Or is that the real you, and the web provides a kind of sheet with a hole through it, through which you can say and do anything you like without guilt or fear of repercussions? Do you not think a blog comment counts?

This was all brought into screeching focus just prior to Converge when a McCain supporter kicked a leg out from under my friend Joe Killian, a reporter for the News & Record, while he covered Sarah Palin’s rally at Elon University. Joe chose to keep that out of the story in the paper, but wrote about it on his personal blog, as did fellow reporter Mark Binker on an official N&R blog.

Man, did Greensboro’s Spite Machine fire up.

The story has gone global now, but in those first few days conservative bloggers, several of whom had exchanged words with Joe in the past, were quick to attack Joe’s story. Either he was making it up, or exaggerating, or did something to deserve it. While demanding proof from Joe, who didn’t press charges because he couldn’t find the guy after getting a cop, these same bloggers have thrown up wild accusations and motives without the very thing they want from Joe: proof. One blogger even cobbled together a timeline of when Joe and Binker blogged about it and the Daily Kos linked to them, claiming conflicting timestamps proved the three had conspired the whole thing. He had to retract the claim after one comment pointed out a simple explanation: time zones.

The blogger has yet to apologize, and still accuses Joe and the N&R of… something. What, I’m still not sure. Others have made similar attacks, implying or outright insisting Joe made the story up to distract from the crowd estimate he quoted in the story (2,000 — pro-Palin bloggers prefer the Burlington Times News estimate of 15,000, while YES! Weekly’s source says 7,000).

Would anyone say this to Joe’s face? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call or e-mail him if you had a question about a perceived inconsistency, before making an accusatory blog post you later had to retract or edit (if you even have that much courtesy)? After all, that’s what the standard is in journalism — verify first, publish second.

The internet is real. The things you say there can affect people. They’ll come back to haunt you if you aren’t careful. As executive editor of my college paper, I witnessed young aspiring politicians essentially scuttle their futures by getting in blogfights, losing their cools and saying things that will be the fodder of any opposition’s campaign. I’ve typed things myself that I later regretted, and learned from the mistake.

Greensboro’s bloggers rarely do. Online, they go on the assault, waging misguided campaigns based on false or misleading info that a moment’s verification could have prevented. In person, they’re all smiles and handshakes.

I want to believe that second you is the real you. If so, then stop and think before clicking “Submit.”

“What would I say to him or her in person?”

To comment on this column, e-mail Chris Lowrance at chris@yesweekly.com.

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