Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 5, 2012

Mr. Smith goes to Facebook: Hostility lurks in electronic Internet age

— — It was a vicious start to the morning. Bleary eyed, with coffee in hand, I began posting links to A-1 stories on our Facebook page. It’s a morning ritual — one that’s typically uneventful.

That wasn’t the case last Thursday, when one of those stories detailed the community support for Chick-fil-A on Wednesday. Hundreds turned out to support the restaurant, and its founder, who openly condemned same-sex marriage. The debate began lightly — and then escalated.

Not long after posting the story to our Facebook page the argument began. Pro and con Chick-fil-A; pro and con same-sex marriage. Free speech, Christian  values and more were being argued.

It was nice to see people voicing opinions about the issue on our Facebook page. The anger emanating from many of the postings was not so appealing.

Sometimes I’m shocked by the level of frustration coming from those posting a comment or sending an email.

Whatever happened to calm and rational?

lll

As editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, my views on same-sex marriage do not matter. I am a communicator of the facts.

Facts such as hundreds of individuals showing up at our local Chick-fil-A to show their support on an unofficial “appreciation day” indicate the importance of a front-page story.

But why, I wondered, why, oh why, do people allow themselves to become so angry?

The Facebook debate began in the early a.m. hours and continued throughout the morning. I monitored comments from home until the time came that I had to get ready for work.

Arriving at the office I saw that the same-sex marriage debate continued to be a hot-button topic.

lll

I am a firm believer that the electronic age has played a large role in the angering of America. Individuals who might never raise their voice in person think nothing of blasting others behind the anonymity of a keyboard and wireless router.

While it may not be culturally acceptable to loudly and rudely express one’s opinions — while screaming dissent about opposing viewpoints — over a cup of coffee or around the dinner table, it is seemingly OK to do so via an Internet connection.

Angry words and phrases, punctuated by all caps and a multitude of slammers (newsroom speak for exclamation points), flow across computer screens with ease. Most of these folks don’t yell or hurl insults in public, yet behind the safety of a keyboard they do so casually and with ease.

Granted, not all posters fall into this pit of incivility. Within the threads of outrage one can find bright spots of reason, logic and, perhaps most impressive, good old-fashioned manners. But as our society continues further down the road of faceless, nameless communication, the madness continues to intensify.

lll

The police scanner alerted us to the beginning of a busy news day just minutes after I had taken a seat at my desk. Structure fire near Bluewell. At the time, Lifestyles Editor Jamie Parsell and I were the lone staffers in the office.

Reporter Greg Jordan was already headed to a court hearing in Princeton. Jamie called photographer Jon Bolt and sent him to the fire, while I rerouted reporter Kate Coil.

Not long after posting photos and updates from the scene of the blaze to our website, the scanner began blaring reports of a car accident near Princeton.

Yes, it was going to be one of those days.

lll

The next few hours were spent posting updates to our website, linking stories to our Facebook page and sending out email alerts. And, of course, checking in on the fierce Chick-fil-A debate. By mid-afternoon it appeared most of those in the newsroom were tired, stressed and suffering from wet-cat syndrome (you know, the emotion and intensity of a wet cat).

Then, suddenly, a ray of happiness appeared. Circulation Director Chuck Sullins had a new puppy — one that was with him at the office that afternoon. Chuck walked into the newsroom. Trailing behind him was the tiny Yorkshire terrier-Chihuahua pup, Mr. Smith.

In an instant, the mood lightened. I scooped up Mr. Smith and the newsroom staff gathered round. We “oohed.” We “ahhed.” We smiled.

Someone joked that the puppy could be our newshound. It sparked the idea to post a picture of him posed in front of the newspaper on our Facebook page. We introduced him to our readers, and asked what they thought. In minutes we had a dozen “likes” and multiple positive posts. As the afternoon wore on the numbers continued to grow.

By the time I left work we had 167 “likes” and more than 20 postings expressing variations of “cuteness.”

lll

I’m not sure how, or why, a photo of an adorable puppy could turn the tide of an outraged online debate into an atmosphere of rainbows and unicorns. I attempted to mull it over on the drive home but, emotionally exhausted, I gave up.

In a virtual world brimming with insults and anger, Mr. Smith spurred people to pause and, for a moment, be happy. It seems like we all could use a little more of that.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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