Friday, April 10, 2009

Anonymous Sniping- The New Blood Sport

So when did it become fashionable to revel in others’ misery? With the current economic downturn, there have been quite a few stories in the media lately about folks who have fallen on hard times. Perhaps unlike the past, a good number of these people are credentialed and hardworking individuals who are either victims of corporate “down-sizing” or simply got caught long when the real estate market turned. Just like the past, some of these folks also chose their lot in life or got there by making objectively bad decisions. Either way, the end result is the same.

Just the other day, I read a piece in the local rag about a couple from California’s Central Valley who are flirting with homelessness. According to the story, this couple had previously owned a restaurant together with three homes, one of which was their primary residence and two of which were investment properties. Their restaurant was recently shuttered when the building which they leased was found to have numerous code violations that the owner either couldn’t, or refused to cure. That event, coupled with the radical devaluation of their real estate, has left this couple competing with the bums for bottles, cans, plastic bottles and handouts.

Anyway, the website that was carrying this story has a Comments function where readers can log in, mostly anonymously, and post their thoughts. Back in the old days, when we got our news from actual papers, I always brushed by the headlines, the local news, the business section, even the sports page and went straight to the Letters to the Editor on the Op-Ed page. That was where the real action was. That was where society bore its soul. And that was where you could get the unsanitized truth along with a hearty dose of laughter, incredulity, anger and more.

Letters to the Editor are still an integral part of newspapers and periodicals, but the Comments function on websites is quickly usurping the old-fashion letter. The difference is this: anonymity. Unlike the letters of old, the Comments function on most websites is the Wild West. You can post virtually anything you want behind the safety of a silly screen name without consequence. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that people tend to speak their mind more freely; it’s a curse in that people tend to speak their mind more freely. That why the Comments section is the first place I go when I visit a website.

So I’m reading the comments that people have left about the couple from the Central Valley who lost their restaurant and are now employed as full time recyclers. And the comments are shockingly nasty. Predictably, a large number of the commenters immediately jumped to the conclusion that this couple was simply lazy and yearned to be on the public dole. Another sizeable segment of the comments was devoted to the belief that these people were getting exactly what they deserved because owning three homes was obviously well beyond their means. Someone even suggested that since this couple failed to cure the building code deficiencies that were the building owner’s responsibility they were actually at fault for the closure of their restaurant. Compassion and understanding for this couple’s misfortune was in short supply. Arrogance, smugness and condemnation were not.

Beyond that, I noticed a huge disconnect between what many of these commenters advocated for this couple, and the bases of their criticism of them. As those in a more secure position are apt to do, many commenters suggested that if this particular couple only had enough entrepreneurial gumption, spirit and drive (presumably just like the person making the comment), then they would either not be in the position in which they found themselves, or they could easily navigate their way back to success. At the same time, these very same commenters griped about the previous financial risks this couple took by owning a restaurant and multiple properties. In other words, they first criticized this couple for being too entrepreneurial. They then turned right around and criticized them for not being entrepreneurial enough.

At the end of the day, the whole “discussion” was ridiculous and obviously wasn’t about whether this couple was hyper- or hypo-entrepreneurial. It was about taking shots. It was about kicking someone while they are down in order to make oneself feel superior. It was criticism for the sheer sake of criticism. And commenters were literally reveling in the nastiness and absurdity of the whole sordid affair.

So come one and all and join the fun. It’s our new blood sport. And the really great thing about it is that you can bludgeon someone senseless without getting all that messy blood on your hands. And it’s available for your entertainment and viewing pleasure 24/7/365 on any of a number of locations on the World Wide Web. Enjoy!

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