Athens is a town whose residents, left jobless and destitute by illegal immigrants, huddle terrified at their computers all day, hoping to be spared from marauding hoards of thugs who shoplift, shoot each other over drug deals gone bad and steal taxpayer dollars to fund public art at the local jail. At least, this is what you'd think if all you knew of our town was what you learned reading the online comments to certain Athens Banner-Herald articles. But, of course, this is an inaccurate snapshot of our city. There is no public art at the local jail.
Who are these anonymous commenters, I've often wondered, who daily log on to our paper's website to tell other anonymous commenters they're wrong? What motivates them to spend their time and energy this way? Are these the same people I see feeding ducks with their kids at Memorial Park or wolfing down Golden Bowls at the Grit? Or is there another, angrier Athens that can only be seen in the light of a computer monitor?
I called Joel Kight, the ABH online news editor, to find out.
"Actually, the commenters on ABH stories are a cross-section of people, all different types. A lot of them have jobs where they feel they can't speak out. And many of them are disabled or elderly people who can't get out as much as others. This gives them an opportunity to be heard."
Joel knows this, because he hosts regular lunches with these commenters, events where they tell him "what readers are looking for." (The caps lock button, maybe?) This sounded to me like a foolhardy idea, bringing together in person and in the presence of sharp cutlery people who spend their days attacking each other online, but Joel insisted these meetings are civil and valuable. The folks who take the time to comment care about issues—particularly crime and politics—and though they may not represent everyone in Athens, he fully supports their right to voice their opinions.
But do things ever get out of hand?
"I get contacted regularly by commenters upset about some other poster's behavior. But we're not going to ban anyone unless they violate our terms of service. ‘Being a jerk’ is not the same thing as libeling someone.”
Joel spends a good part of every day herding virtual cats on the forums, keeping things as clean and on-topic as he can. And in spite of persistent questioning, he refused to say that his job is stressful or that the level of discourse in the comments makes him weep for humanity, which indicates to me that he is either an extremely tolerant professional or very heavily medicated.
"I do get concerned about personal attacks and how polarized people are. But I think it's interesting and exciting to hear from our readers."
Hoping to talk to the readers myself, I logged on to Athenstalks.com (that's Athens Talks, not Athen Stalks) and created a new discussion topic asking about their experiences. Among the jokes about feminism and candy bars, and some mild "newbie" hazing, there were some thoughtful responses about the entertainment and educational value of the online forum, and about the need to support the local newspaper. For the most part, the comments were well thought out and reasonable. And so, what about the rage? What about the personal attacks and partisan vitriol? Are these the same commenters who make me look twice at my fellow Athenians when I'm in line at Kroger?
E.J., one of the ABH commenters, had perhaps the best answer. "It would be a mistake to judge an area by its commenting site. People with better things to do are doing those things."
Are you new to online commenting and don't know how to get started? Use the guide below to craft your first post, and let the heady debate begin.
You are wrong because you are:
I am right because I: