Saturday, October 4, 2008

Internet vs. "IRL" diatribe

The local newspaper of the town I live in has been reporting an ongoing story about a local couple wanting to open a Bed and Breakfast inn. Neighbors voiced objections, and when the initial story broke, many people, as their want, left comments about the article, voicing their opinions. A few of the comments took on a slanderous bent when an anonymous poster alluded to bribing the Planning Commision by the couple. After the couple withdrew their petition due to city ordinances, they cited that the opinions made in the comments section of the paper were libelous and a defamation of their character. The couple then attempted to go through the courts to order the local paper to give up identifying information on the person who made the bribery comment.

Today in a Chicago courtroom, the judge dismissed the couples' effort that would have forced the local paper in giving up such information, agreeing with the local paper's attorney when she stated that "no reasonable person would give any credence to comments posted online."

I want to put aside comparing comments, opinions and out and out heresy, since I never read the offending comment. I'm talking about not what was said, but the medium it which it was said. Do the opinions and ideas I expound, the words I choose, carry less weight because I type them using a computer? Is the meaning lost because they are reduced to so many ones and zeroes, and when I hit 'enter' they reappear once again as my thoughts for all the world to see on many other computers, opposed to let's say, having the same comment printed in a newspaper someone holds in their hand? Does standing on a soapbox at the corner of First and Main and yelling my words make them even more real still?

The people I talk with online, are they less so because I can't touch them? Are they less real? I remember when I first went online in the late nineties, I spent time chatting with people all over the world. It was a big deal for me back then. For example, if I mentioned that so-in-so in New York was getting married, my husband would give me an odd look and reply, "Oh, that's your Internet friend." No, she's my friend. Period. I talk to my sister she less my sister at that moment, is her life less because we are not relating "IRL"?

Is this how people thought when the telephone was introduced? It's a good thing that Bell's assistant, Mr. Watson didn't think a disembodied voice was just that, less than the whole of the person deploring "Watson, come here, I need you!", or the acid Bell had spilled on his leg would have burned through to the bone.

According to a website that tracks Internet trends, about 40% of adult Internet users read newspapers online. The Internet is becoming less and less 'disembodied' and more 'IRL' as more people depend on their computers to deliver them information.

I commend my local paper for sticking to freedom of speech and the right to privacy, and a person's right to stay 'anonymous'. I can't agree though with the fact that somehow a person is not 'reasonable' because they choose to take to heart something they read online, that since it was just on the Internet, it should be taken with so many grains of salt.

Yes, there are many things about the Internet that should cause people to "pass the salt, please" when reading, just as there are many things found on any newsstand around the world. I just don't believe a judge should determine which source is more valid. I believe that is up to the reader. To me, ideas are ideas, no matter where I read them and I don't need a judge to tell me which words or comments I should deem relevant.

1 comment:

  1. Good points as always. Do you think the reason we're seeing the Internet/IRL distinction is because of the level of anonymity on the Net? There are studies that show that people are ruder on the Net than they are "in real life" because of this anonymity. And I don't even want to start talking about the stupid drinking pics students post on their Facebook pages thinking future employers won't find them.