Two markedly different recent events provide stark reminders of the power of blogs--and the very real consequences involved for those who provide fodder for bloggers and commenters.
The first, obviously, is the Nancy Nall/Tim Goeglein blockbuster. I've discussed this one already, but I'll summarize by saying that blogs have real power today. Nall's post went from local curiosity to national news within hours, and Goeglein turned in his resignation not 12 hours after it first appeared. At the risk of sounding biased, I think Nall's post was very much fair play. Sure, she doesn't like Goeglein, and sure, she had mocked his writing in the past. But it was Goeglein's blatant plagiarism that caused his demise; Nall just hastened it. (Goeglein acknowledged as much in today's News-Sentinel.) It may be too soon to say where this story will end, but one thing's for sure: Goeglein has lost his job, maybe along with some future opportunities that were available to him as of Thursday. That's pretty serious stuff, regardless of who's to blame.
Tonight, Nall announced that she's shutting down comments on the Goeglein post. It's a matter of both self-preservation and maintaining the civil tone she strives to set, she explains:
Keeping up with the moderation queue is making it tough to get anything else done, and I think all that needs to be said has been said. The more recent poo-flinging is starting to get on my nerves as well. As many of our regulars have noted, this is a blog that keeps things fairly friendly, even when we’re fighting. I’m putting pretty much everything through in the interest of letting everyone have a say, but it’s really unwieldy now.The important thing here, I think, is that Nall seems to understand that there are real people behind the posts and comments on her blog. While you might criticize her for calling attention to Goeglein's writing, she did notify the News-Sentinel first, as Leo Morris noted on his blog on Friday. Now she is making the judgment call that things are getting out of hand in the comments. Both appear to be good, carefully considered decisions.
Blogs, however, aren't always so civil, and things don't always end so well. Take the story of Paul Tilley, for example. Tilley, the creative director of DDB Chicago, committed suicide on February 23. Some are speculating that the way he was treated in blog postings and comments had something to do with it, as The New York Times reports:
Before his death, Mr. Tilley had come under particularly harsh criticism on the advertising blogs. AgencySpy, which is written by an anonymous advertising industry employee, was perhaps the most biting.
In a Feb. 19 posting, the site quoted excerpts from an internal e-mail message Mr. Tilley had sent to subordinates, in which he wrote: “Too many of you are only doing good work. And some of you are doing work that simply isn’t good enough.”
AgencySpy wrote that Mr. Tilley “needs to go back to management 101,” adding: “At one point, Paul thought he could make it as a game show host. Doesn’t one need to be charming for that?”
The site then published 12 comments peppered with personal insults aimed at Mr. Tilley — among them an insult signed by George Parker, the author of the AdScam blog.
Friends of Tilley's and blogs like the daily (ad) biz have suggested that someone doesn't commit suicide as a result of what they read on a blog--and they're probably right. But when bloggers create a hostile, uncivil environment, they're certainly not contributing to a constructive dialogue. The hard part is judging what's newsworthy and relevant, and what's just a personal attack.
When I first started this blog, a friend gave me some good advice: the tone you set will be the one adopted by the majority of your visitors. Keep things civil, and most of them will play along. But go into the gutter, and some people will be inclined to follow. And they likely will be the voices that dominate the conversation.
I'm lucky, because this blog's subjects aren't inherently controversial, and the traffic is slow enough to prevent much, if any, bickering. But if there's a lesson to be learned from Tilley's suicide, it's that even the most benign topics can lead to some ugly online conversations. And if there's a lesson to be learned from the Nall/Goeglein story, it's that a blogger has some control over the tone, even when the subject matter is politically charged or otherwise controversial.
If we hope to truly enhance our communication environment with help from technology, nothing is more important than remembering that there are real people behind the posts and comments we make, and that there are real consequences for the things we say online. As technology gives us the safety of physical distance, it also can make us forget the true power of words. You're responsible for what you say online, just as you're responsible for what you say in the real world. Nancy Nall and Tim Goeglein are learning that lesson as we speak, and they seem to be handling it as constructively as possible. As for Paul Tilley, it's not clear whether a more civil tone would have made a difference--but that, of course, is enough to make you think before you hit the submit button.