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At a recent meeting at City Hall the subject was bike safety, this time as it relates to certain high-incidence-of-collisions intersections on the peninsula. Public Works, Newport Beach Police and members of the Citizens Bicycle Safety Committee gathered to discuss what’s happening and where. Eventually the Committee will identify and recommend remedies. But I left that meeting with a note to myself on a different subject: Is it time to begin a courtesy campaign?

As this session wrapped up, our discussions wandered into civility, or lack thereof and how rude cyclists and motorists can be. It’s something we’ve all experienced first-hand.

Is it worse today? Hard to say.

Is there anything we can do about it? I wondered, where would you start?

On a blog, of course; you knew that was coming. If we alter our discussions will that have an effect on behavior?

Before I could give it much thought the Daily Pilot announced that they were converting to Facebook-only comments. Their stated reason:

Our hope is that a lack of anonymity will encourage accountability and reduce some of the boorish behavior exhibited on our website pages… we think this extra step will reduce some of the hateful speech and steer the conversations back to where they belong: on the issues.

As to this blog, we’d been experimenting with a combination of old-style and FB comments; everything worked well, so right after the Daily Pilot announcement I converted this blog, cdmCyclist and theFrankPetersShow to FB-only comments.

I’ve been blogging for 7 years now, but seldom do the subjects of entrepreneurship and angel investing generate much controversy; nonetheless, there have been more than a few times I decided to spam a bitter, hateful or inappropriate comment. And why not? I am most concerned about having a site where everyone feels welcome and discussions of issues on any subject will be courteous, to an extent. Then in 2010 I started cdmCyclist and shortly thereafter I was being published and linked to from other sites. I had more to learn about dealing with angry speech. There was a raw nerve out there and many readers felt few qualms about saying whatever mean-spirited, hateful or hurtful comments they could imagine. These would never see the light of day on my sites, but others who published my posts would publish these rants.

Is there a journalistic code of conduct that says it’s more important to let readers’ thoughts air out, than worry about delicate feelings? If there was, it’s losing ground rapidly. A quick search of “improving discourse using Facebook comments” yields a trove of Big Media sites that have decided this issue. As many know, the Orange County Register, Riverside’s Press Enterprise, the Dallas Morning News and many others have all made the switch. Maybe they’re all owned by the same company, but I suspect they’re all equally fed up with “the growing lack of civility in political discourse,” as stated by the PE.

Well it’s not just political discourse, is it? I remember during the last presidential election, as my wife and I would plan a social gathering we had new conditions, new filters: how would some guests’ points of view clash with others? Since we weren’t out to host a political debate, but more likely just overcook a steak, this was new ground for us. Today many subjects, and especially bicycle stories, evoke passionate, wacko, strident and threatening comments.

Will this trend to authenticated identities via Facebook comments improve civility? Will the Tea Party’s take-no-prisoners dialog continue indefinitely? Or are we approaching a new era where we will begin to listen more thoughtfully to one another’s points of view? Matt O’Toole writes:

Facebook Comments is as simple as installing a WordPress plugin, which anyone can do in 5 minutes. Unlike Twitter or Gmail it’s too much trouble to set up fake Facebook accounts. Most people will just use their “real” one, which will keep a lid on their behavior, or they just won’t bother. Unfortunately, news sites make money from advertising sales based on page-views and incendiary content with comments is a great way to get those clicks. Readers are getting sick of this and many news sites are changing, but others are still hanging on. So “bike baiting” has been the majority of our press coverage. While it’s designed to get people riled up, each nitwit comment is an opportunity to deliver a factual message. Eventually as we trickle it all out, people will start to make sense of it and we will win them over.

Let’s hope so.

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Frank Peters

listen to my podcast shows at cdmCyclist.com

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