Palo Alto Weekly
Notes & Comments - July 11, 2007
Our Town: More about Town Square
by Don Kazak
This is a response to reactions to the column I wrote last week about the level of rancor that is often evident in the anonymous postings on Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum.
The column has generated thoughtful responses, which can be found on Town Square. I've also gotten personal responses.
One interesting thing is that some people are applauding me for something I am not advocating.
I am not advocating an end to anonymity on Town Square postings.
It simply wouldn't work.
Anonymity gives people freedom to write what they want, but it shouldn't remove them for feeling responsible for what they write or how it affects other people.
I'm suggesting a voluntary responsibility.
It would probably be fruitless only to have postings that are signed, since many people would simply stop writing.
While reading Town Square postings on issues that were on my radar as something to write about as a columnist, I have been appalled by some of the venom unleashed when people disagree with each other, almost always anonymously.
We're part of this community together and the discord on Town Square on important issues reflects the inability we have as a community to talk with each other in a respectful manner while holding opposing viewpoints, even if the postings are anonymous.
One could say that a healthy debate and even fractious disagreement is a hallmark of democracy, and we are better off for it than not.
But consideration for the opinions of others should also be part of that, and sometimes, it is not.
It is also true, as one reader pointed out on Town Square, that many of the postings, even though anonymous, are respectful.
But I was moved to write what I did last week not just because of what I had been reading on Town Square but because people have been talking about being afraid to post their opinions on Town Square because it can get so hurtful for those who do post.
One reader told me in an e-mail that he has dropped out of the community debates on Town Square because they can veer off into such disrespect.
I don't think the Weekly may tinker overmuch with Town Square because it is one of the most phenomenally successful things the newspaper has ever done.
We used say that the letters to the editor on our editorial pages were the most important pages in the newspaper because that is where the community talks to itself without us filtering anything.
Little did we know that once people started posting on Town Square they would have an enormous number of things to say to each other.
That's a good thing.
I was also moved to write what I did last week because people died long ago to create the right for people to speak freely and because it was our most important national holiday, which I felt people may take for granted.
The best defense of free speech I have ever heard was "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Well, that's not exactly happening in Palo Alto.
Important discussions spark passion, but that passion should be also seasoned with consideration of others.
We could all be better in what we write and say that can affect other people.
I was simply asking readers who post on Town Square to be more respectful of the opinions of others.
One can't legislate civility and consideration of others. It's about a sense of community, or the lack thereof.
Town Square tests my trust in other people because of the arrogance of people who post hurtful comments.
I was in Santa Cruz recently to have dinner with friends. There was a sign over the bar in the restaurant that caught my attention.
It read, "Be nice or go away."
If only it would be that simple.
Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Posted by PA Citizen,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2007 at 11:48 am
"Why anonymity?", Google remembers everything. If one is going to engage in a gloves-off verbal exchange, does one want all of that to live forever on the Google servers, with one's name attached?
That said, anonymity permits one to make several points, using different identities - points that might otherwise be rejected out of hand by readers who have a built in bias against a known real person, or even a particular pseudonym. In this way, multiple identities permit a forum participant to present often conflicting sides of an argument - i.e. opinions that would otherwise be written-off by readers who have created a perceptual bias. Thus, multiple identities can be an effective rhetorical tactic in online forums.
When two or more participants get particularly obsessive about making a point, it might help to to have an email address that is posted along with their name, or pseudonym; that would permit more off-line haggling around fine points, as in "let's take this off line".
Bottom line: it's the Weekly's forum, and the Weekly can monitor and edit as it pleases. I don't always agree with some of the edits, but se la vie
A few additional notes:
email postings are notoriously famous for being misinterpreted, because they are not accompanied by facial expression or verbal intonation. So, many remarks that are uttered tongue-in-cheek, or with a slightly raised eyebrow, or with a mildly sarcastic tone, are often mistaken by participants as harsh insults.
How about giving us the ability to enter graphic representations of facial expressions (like smileys)? That might help to lighten things up a bit.
Another thing I have found here is that there are some posters who insist on dead-level, extremely measured prose. Their style of presentation, one might say, is almost akin to having the color of their potential language "neutered". Those posters uses a kind of passive-aggressive "niceness" to push agendas that is often based on information that is dead wrong on their face - based on good information to the contrary.
When it comes to most municipal issues - things like staff funding, infrastructure, etc. we see most postings dominated by those who are intensely critical of staff, and policy makers - making generalizations without data, or skewing data to serve incomplete ends. The recent library audit post is a perfect example of this behavior, where the usual suspects showed up to trash the library. We will see the samer suspects coming out to trash the public safety building, or increases in education funding.
These residents need to be called on their facts, as the forums are often scanned by policy-makers. We need more balance in these forums; we need voices of reason accompanied by vision, instead of the penny-pinching, regressives (who like to call themselves fiscal conservatives). What's a conservative any more, since Goldwater?
What botthers me about this forum, most of all, is that an H.L Mencken-like "color", or an Oscar Wilde-like "demeanor" seems to be taken as verbal abuse. Where's the spice?
I'm still not sure whether this has to do with the plain vanilla-like behavior that some editors of the Weekly prefer, or if it's a general community norm.
One thing for sure: there will always be disagreement on public issues. With that as a given, why NOT permit the clever use of words used to make light of a point that someone disagrees with. Otherwise, the entire forum turns into tedium.
A recent thread on whether University Ave, should be turned into a pedestrian promenade is another example. I saw one after another resident advocating for a pedestrian mall, but when good information to the contrary was presented, the more measured (in their manner of posting) individuals kept coming back at those who knew what this would do to retailers (including a retailer who seemed to know the score).
Thtese forums are more about the VARIETY of kiinds and modes of communication than they are about the way that communication is presented.
Some people, many people, LIKE a little spice in their food - same goes for conversation.
Of course, the Weekly has a demeanor, which it will project into its online forum. Perhaps the Weekly - a paper I respect - can look at ways to "loosen up" and permit arguments and disagreements as long as their are not full-frontal personal attacks.
One of my current favorites is Christopher Hitchens. I don't agree with everything Hitchens says, but I'd bet money that if Jitchens was writing for the PA online forums the way he talks in public, or writes (for Vanity Fair, and elsewhere), much of his language - especially his descriptions of those he disagrees with - would be deleted.
This forum needs to "lighten up" a little, and let the sparks fly. If there are a few who are too timid to endure that, or can't see it for what it is, maybe THEY need to go somewhere else. Hasn't Palo Alto been ruled by a minority for too long? Do we want the minority of plain vanilla "nice" people dominating this forum? I hope not. There's a place for everyone.
Last, I've posted in this forum, and have had bitter disagreements with some. I still like those people, and why shouldn't I. After all, if they didn't exist, it woudll be a perfect world - and wouldn't that be boring?