In any decent Hollywood action movie, the pivotal scene is a bar fight. Chuck or Arnold or Jean-Claude walks into a bar, says something, and some joker takes offense for no good reason. A few words fly, followed by punches and bottles. Tables splinter in half and someone goes through a plate glass window. Who doesn't love a movie bar fight?
A movie would be dull if instead of swaggering into a bar, Chuck taps his request for a drink onto a keyboard in his living room and the joker who thinks he could take him taps his insult into his own keyboard across town.
But that's what I picture when I read the comments on almost any story on the Lost Coast Outpost, which would be a great name for a bar.
The Lost Coast Outpost is the online news site that local radio broadcaster Lost Coast Communications launched in 2011 when its editor, Hank Sims, left his previous post at this paper.
Consider Friday night's LoCO story about the cancelation of the Mad River Summerfest concerts. Someone by the tag of "Thechinamanisnottheissue" makes this insightful comment: "Logistical issues? Another local festival takes a crap." There is back and forth on whether the farm where the festival was scheduled to take place uses herbicides and then a poster tagged as "Guess who" says:
"Quit your fucking complaining. IS THIS ALL YOUR CAPABLE OF DOING? Since you're on such an environmental kick, did you ever stop to think about how much pollution and waste there was from the manufacturing of your computer? You know — the device you use to nag & complain with daily."
If this were an action movie, "Thechinamanisnottheissue" would get the first fist in the face. "Guess who" would get a high kick to the chest.
In the movie bar fight, we recognize the people who make the asinine comments as asses, and we cheer when they go through the plate glass window.
In real life, bar fights like that rarely happen. If they happened as often as they do in the movies, there wouldn't be a bar open; they'd all be closed for repairs. In real life, even tough men try to avoid fists to the face or kicks to the chest by keeping their mouths shut in bars. Most talk in bars between strangers is polite conversation about the Raiders or Giants or ex-spouses or those idiots in Congress. If you really disagree with something someone says, well, you just order another bourbon or leave.
When I read the comments on the Lost Coast Outpost, I picture the same line of lonely strangers seated around the bar having an inane conversation. But instead they are each seated in front of their computer, or on their couch tapping into their tablets, a drink on the side table or a smoke in their mouth.
No one needs to keep the conversation polite. An insult can't result in punch to the nose. The comments on the Mad River Fest story weren't unique. Back in May, many comments on the stories about the manhunt for fugitive Shane Miller were just plain nasty.
More and more online sites are tightening up restrictions on commenting. In July, the Poynter Institute — where the journalism industry goes for advice — reported that ESPN.com would now require posters to register with a Facebook or LinkedIn account, which allows people to post using pseudonyms, but still makes them somewhat accountable. ESPN.com editor Patrick Steigman told Poynter's Marie Shanahan this: "We want people to be candid — actively engage in strong and thorough debate, but do it in a way without anonymity," he said. "Agree or disagree, but do it in a way that is as productive and civil as possible."
That's for a site where the productive and civil discussions are pretty exclusively about the Raiders or Yanks or Sharks or Lakers and not about the idiots in Congress. Shanahan says that ESPN is just one of a number of established news sites to tighten up on online comments by requiring some form of registration. Others she found include the online sites of NPR, Salon, the Huffington Post, NBC News and Slate.
Poynter reported that news organizations that require poster authentication find an increased level of civility and an overall increase in quality of discussion.
But to post to Lost Coast Outpost you also have to register, either through Facebook or Twitter or Google or a service called Disqus which lets you make up a name after you give it your email address. So that makes me wonder how bad the discourse would be if LoCO didn't require any registration. Do we simply have a higher per capita population of idiots in this community than on ESPN?
Imagine that in the bar, the two troublemakers finally stumble out because they suddenly begin to wonder where their wives have been while they've been tossing back Buds. After they leave, the bar conversation vastly improves.
I'd like to see the Lost Coast Outpost become the go-to site for not just the quick news on what is happening locally, but also for civil discourse about what is happening in our local area. I want to sit down at my virtual local bar and have a great conversation with strangers from the community over the real beer I drink while I read.
But please, if you wouldn't say something to someone's face in a real bar, don't spout it online. I say that unless you have information that needs to get out and telling it will get you fired or arrested, posting anonymously is an act of a coward. Them's my fighting words.
Meanwhile, bartender, pour me a glass of milk.
—– Marcy Burstiner
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the department of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She never posts under assumed names or tags and tries to keep her own damned mouth shut except once a month in this column.