Freedom of Speech and the Cost of Participation
Original post made by Stacey, Amberwood/Wood Meadows, on Apr 16, 2012
Posted by Lou, a resident of the Another Pleasanton neighborhood neighborhood, 4 hours ago
Here is another take on the above comments and the Pleasanton Weekly Town Square forum in general. First I do agree that this story should be reported whether or not it occurred in Ptown. Stories from around the world are reported, many of which are sad, uncomfortable and include Pleasantonians. I do not believe in media censorship. What I do question is having it on the Weekly Forum and here is why...
In the olden days before blogging and the Pleasanton Weekly Town Square forum, this (and many other stories) would have found their way into the printed paper and been read by the populace at large. DJ and Steve and others would have read the paper while drinking coffee and made their comments about bad parenting, lack of parenting, whatever to their spouses and that would have been that. Oh, perhaps they might have had enough attention span to then also gossip maliciously with a friend or two over drinks or at a coffee house. Maybe, just maybe they would have felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor. But probably not, because they wouldn't be able to do that anonymously and it takes time to craft a response, email it in and wait for the call giving permission to print. So in the end, the story is properly reported, read, tsk-tsked to friends about and everyone moves on - including the family the story is written about.
Fast forward to the Pleasanton Weekly Town Square forum. Same story, same reporting, but now DJ and Steve can share their ignorance immediately and publically without the filter of even a few seconds and without regard to how this may affect others. Where it was once contained griping within the household or simple malicious gossip between friends of a feather, now it is broadcast to all and to what purpose? These writers do not know anything about the parenting of these people...why? because they aren't them, they aren't part of their parenting process and therefore...ignorant. They really don't know anything about what happened in Chico...why? because they weren't there, they aren't these young adults and therefore, they are writing from... ignorance. And "ignorance is bliss" only if the rest of us are blissfully unaware of their ignorance.
We caution our children about cyber-bullying, yet the Pleasanton Weekly Town Square Forum is simply permitted cyber-bullying in a semi-civilized skin. We attempt to help our children deal with bullies, then we allow cyber-bullies like DJ and Steve and the like to bully at will via the forum. I have yet to read comments on the forum that are universally positive...even if the article itself is positive in nature. Forum comments are almost always negative and, yes, bullying in nature. What a sad commentary on a wonderful community like Pleasanton. I only take solace in the thought that only a small segment of our community write in and cyber-bully via the forum. Perhaps my mom's rule of "if you can't say something nice, perhaps you should say nothing at all" is old fashioned, but I will continue to teach that to my children and perhaps Pleasanton will once again be...well, pleasant.
I locked this topic to registered users to illustrate a point which will soon become clear. Lou writes many things that I agree with and I'd like to extend what was written. As Lou points out, before "blogging", most comments on stories would have been restricted to one's own living room or over coffee while others would be sent as a letter to the editor. An editor would (hopefully) have a vetting process and editorial discretion before publication of those letters. Letters would have to meet the newspaper's standards of decorum and verification of the sender would be required. In essence, a cost is exacted from a letter writer and no one's freedom of speech is abridged when an editor decides not to publish a letter. The author of the letter is still free to disseminate their speech in other venues. Moreover, a newspaper publisher is still able to receive anonymous whistle-blowing information even if they are not published.
Fast forward, as Lou puts it, to the Internet and "blogging". The Wild West days of the Internet have accustomed most people to mistakenly believe that the freedom of speech is something that is without cost, even though that has not historically been the case and even in instances of anonymous publications. There has always been a cost associated with the wide distribution of speech, both monetary and intangible. The Internet has only reduced or somewhat hidden those costs.
A printed newspaper is not much different from a website. They are both self-contained objects and what goes into them is determined by the owner/publisher, who bears all the costs of wide distribution. So what is it about the Internet that leads a publisher to charge a cost to be published in the printed newspaper yet charge practically nothing to be published on the website? I can't answer that question (although I suspect that publishers with non-technical backgrounds are fooled by technology's ability to hide or reduce costs). All I can point out is that when the cost to disseminate speech is hidden or reduced to almost zero, it enables the kind of abusive writing that Lou describes because it doesn't require writers to consider any consequences.
What gets published is wholly the responsibility of the publisher. The publisher sets the rules for publication, assigns costs to participants, and game theory dictates that whatever the publisher allows will and should be performed by the participants in an effort to advance their ideas if they don't want to be marginalized. If a publisher allows bullying to occur in the letters to the editor, there will be writers who take advantage of that to the detriment of others. But what publisher allows targeted bullying occur in printed letters to the editor? Why is that ok on a website? There is really nothing so different about the Internet from a printed publication that prevents a publisher from sharing some of the costs of publication with a writer other than the mistaken idea that the freedom of speech is something without cost when it's on the Internet. Or let me put it this way. If you're giving me a platform and I'm giving you content, we should share the costs. Otherwise you are paying all the costs and I'm able to abuse our relationship as far as you let me.
The PW gave us all the ability to require a vetting process to comment on a thread we start. By requiring registration before one can comment on this thread, I'm illustrating the similarity between the vetting process of "the olden days", as Lou puts it, and a vetting process on this website. I don't have editorial control over what gets posted after someone has passed the vetting process, and that's ok. I'm not paying the full costs to disseminate what you write so I don't have a need to set the rules. But by raising your cost to participate, I'm asking you to give a little more pause before writing and hopefully that means your content is much more thoughtful. And that makes the publisher's job of moderation easier, improves the tone of discussion on the site, and encourages more participation by those who have no wish to compete on a playing field that allows bullying.