Brooke Brodack remembers her first online "hater."
Nearly two years ago, the person posted rude comments about a video she had posted on YouTube, says Brodack, 21, of San Francisco, whose videos show her lip-syncing and creating characters. "It was shocking to me. Why would someone want to be so mean for no reason?"
Why, indeed? Nasty comments, sometimes even death threats, have become ubiquitous on virtually any website that seeks to engage readers in discussion.
"Ur ugly u suk and u should die," says a typical comment beneath one of Brodack's many videos. Such vulgar messages have inspired heated discussions, and video responses, on YouTube.
The Internet always has had an anything-goes atmosphere where flame wars and harsh language are common. Now there are more places than ever for people to spout their thoughts — often with relative anonymity — thanks to the explosion in blogs, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and comments sections on nearly every news site.
But a series of incidents, including one involving a female technology blogger who briefly went into hiding after receiving sexually explicit death threats, has made online incivility an increasingly hot topic and fueled a debate over how to balance free speech with social etiquette.
"The information superhighway has become the mean streets of cyburbia," says Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo. "It's just gotten steadily worse.
"If cocktail parties were like the Internet, half the people would come home every night dripping wet from glasses of Chardonnay tossed in their faces," Saffo says. "There are two ways to get famous in cyberspace: Say something clever and memorable, or say something outrageous. And unfortunately, it's a lot easier to be outrageous than clever and memorable."
On many online sites, people are kind and supportive and have formed virtual communities.
"People on the Net are overwhelmingly trustworthy and civil to each other," says Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, the popular community bulletin board site. "But there's always fanatic and crazy people out there."
Like many sites, Craigslist relies largely on readers to police behavior: If enough people flag an ad or comment as inappropriate, it's removed automatically or reviewed.
Many sites, including those operated by newspapers, remove offensive comments reported by readers or staff members.
"They want to allow free speech, but at the same time, they want to do it in a respectable way," says Ellyn Angelotti, interactivity editor at the Poynter Institute, which does continuing education for journalists. "They want to make sure it's not turning their other users away."
'It really crossed the line'
Several newspapers, wary of outrageous posts by readers, have banned all comments during major news events. That's what happened in April at The Roanoke Times in Virginia, which shut down a message board it had set up to discuss the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech.
Initial comments were "very civil," says online editor John Jackson, but they quickly turned ugly. "All of a sudden, we started noticing the nastier comments."
He can't recall exactly what they said but remembers they were laced with profanity. "It was really a no-brainer decision to take it down because it really crossed the line so terribly," Jackson says.