Brawling On The Internet

073101, story graphic, code red computer virus worm, JM
Finding an intelligent political discussion on the Web is still a challenge. Despite the maturing of the Internet, juvenile vulgarity and extremism are often the norm on many mainstream chat boards.

The Web's accessibility -- and the relative anonymity of the user behind the computer keyboard -- makes the Internet a convenient place to vent hatred and prejudice with impunity.

"The openness of these newsgroups has been their downfall," said Robert Wood, a professor at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, who teaches a course on sociology and the Internet.

"Many people, myself included, have deserted these parts of the Internet," he said.

On the message boards of the popular Web site major world religions are routinely defiled, world leaders cursed and entire peoples denounced in unpublishable ways.

Ethnic stereotyping, and even calls for mass slaughter, drown out the more thoughtful comments on Yahoo's message board on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which can attract hundreds of messages every hour.

The debate is perhaps a little more refined on some Usenet message boards, a part of the Internet that was popular long before the Web. The boards are easily browsable at Google groups.

On one board about Israel, crude comments loaded with exclamation points and strings of capital letters are sprinkled around some otherwise calmer postings. But even these gentler comments tend to be no more than a few sentences.

Hope is not lost, however, for the eager online commentator. With a discerning eye and a step away from mainstream message boards, thoughtful, if heated, debates can be found.

Charlie Murtaugh, a 29-year-old biology researcher at Harvard University, keeps clear of many big message boards when scanning the Web for conversation.

Instead, he turns to so-called Web logs, individually run Web sites that serve as the personal publishing vehicle of the owner. Avoiding the mass audience of the corporate-backed Web sites, Web logs -- or blogs, as they are known -- tend to generate a more selective audience.

Murtaugh, for instance, may read some commentary on popular blogs run by personalities such as free-lance writer Andrew Sullivan, Reason magazine editor-at-large Virginia Postrel, or law professor Glenn Reynolds.

He might then send them an e-mail response, or take the discussion further by putting it on his own blog.

The debate continues along these lines, as ideas cycle from one blog to others. More about blogs can be found at

"The people who read the blogs tend to be relatively sophisticated," Murtaugh said. "They're not stupid."

Ideally, the cycle is something of a meritocracy, where new blogs with interesting ideas attract attention and are mentioned by more popular blogs. Perhaps most importantly, blogs require accountability of opinions, with each pundit putting his or her name behind every comment.

Sometimes the least likely Web sites end up hosting worthwhile political discussions.

Nick Rivera, a technology supervisor at the applied physics department of Columbia University in New York, turns to a British sports Web site, for good political conversation.

"I find the level of conversation better in terms of politics even though it's a sports board," Rivera said.

Among Web sites that seek out public commentary, accountability stands as an important goal. The New York Times, for instance, has a set of hurdles for those wanting to discuss Middle East politics on its online message boards.

Would-be participants of that message board must pre-register with a group moderator. Even then, messages cannot be sent from free e-mail accounts, such as Yahoo! or Hotmail, presumably because these accounts can be very hard to link to an individual.

On Slashdot, a technology news site that draws its popularity from its active message boards, posters who fail to give a name or nickname are identified as "Anonymous Coward."

On Plastic, a discussion site made up of some 26,000 contributors, writers are kept honest by a message rating system that makes interesting comments easier to find.

Wood, the Rutgers professor, said some of the best debate comes via e-mail.

By signing up for an e-mail discussion group, known as a listserv, one can join a moderated debate on virtually any topic. One place to sign up for listservs, which have existed for more than two decades, is Topica. Yahoo also offers a similar service with its Yahoo Groups service.

"In a sense, the saving grace of the Internet is that it is vast enough to house a lot of bad along with the good," Wood said. "It is sad in some ways that intelligent users have had to leave certain 'places' on the Internet, but there are ample other exciting virtual places to be."