How Facebook improves online conversation

Rude comments are the bane of the Web, but Facebook and other forums offer a remedy

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Can we talk?

In the old days, we might have retired to the parlor to chat about great ideas.

Or we could have organized a polite debate: “Resolved: That civilized discourse is good and noble.”

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We might even have initiated Jane Austen-style correspondence of the sort that opens, “I am in receipt of yours of the 7th instant.”

That we have forgotten how to converse is far from an original observation. Lamenting the lost art of conversation and the debasing of discourse is a regularly scheduled reaction to the attention-challenged, talk-radio-inflamed, red-faced-TV-panel way we live today. The writer Stephen Miller captured the problem nicely in his 2006 book “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art,” in which he also pointed out that we live in a time when “rude people are celebrated as authentic.” (Here's the Monitor review.)

Rude excels on TV.

The camera loves emotion, passion, and controversy. Radio is a bit more thoughtful, although red-meat outrage plays well at certain hours and on certain frequencies. That’s entertainment.

Conversation, on the other hand, is where a concept is floated, explored, added to, challenged, and often made better because thoughtful people stop posturing and for a few minutes concentrate on one another’s ideas. Conversation can be clever, informative, and honest (although a colorfully embroidered yarn can be part of a good conversation, too).

Whatever else it is, conversation is not rude.

In theory, the online experience should change the way we talk to one another. Instead of journalists and pundits battling it out among themselves or dispensing hot-button opinions from Olympus while the audience mutely listens, everyone can now be part of the conversation.

But you’ve no doubt run across comments on the Web. So you’re probably familiar with classics such as these:

•“You call this news, knucklehead?”

•“What kind of right-wing (left-wing) zealot would believe X?”

•“Great site. Click here to buy (insert name of performance-enhancing drug).”

•And the always clever: “@#$#*!” (because Anglo-Saxon swearwords just never get old).

We really are better people than this. Part of the problem is anonymity. When you give your name, your reputation is on the line. When you appear as “Kid4eva” or “dawgtown31,” you can say anything. The easy solution would be to ban anonymous comments. But anonymity is a protection in some cases, given the problems of harassment, stalking, and identity theft. Not everybody chooses to live a public life even if they occasionally want to contribute to a public conversation.

At the Monitor, we would love to be in an online conversation with you. Here’s what we bring to the table: We report what is happening in the world. You bring your experience and thoughtfulness. Together, we might even come up with some solutions to problems. That would be an intelligent, interactive network; for want of a better term, how about calling that an “Internet”?

For several years, we’ve experimented with comments at the end of some blogs on CSMonitor.com. We are acquiring new tools that will enable us to have more comments on more articles and to manage them better. We’ve also established a promising forum for conversation on Facebook.

Under the moderation of Monitor staffers Kevin Curley and Jenna Fisher, we post news and ask questions and then a conversation begins. Because it is Facebook, only registered users can use it. It’s a salon with more than 7,000 members so far. If you have not joined, think about it. Go to Facebook.com and search for Christian Science Monitor.

It’s the closest we’ve yet come to a knucklehead-free zone on the Internet.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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