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Column: Online comments rated BC: Be careful

A warning to readers who enter the comment zone on the Salisbury Post’s Web site: Speed and anonymity can bring out the worst in online commentators.
But it can also bring out the best and latest information. If your blood pressure can handle some abrasive remarks, this budding community forum is fascinating.
The comments on salisburypost.com offer the quickest way I know to share new information on local issues. If you see a story to which you’d like to add information or comment, you can do so almost instantly. Click on the comment feature at the bottom of the story and share away. You don’t even have to give your name. (So far.)
But ó as experience with e-mail has probably taught you ó people fire off messages via the Internet without hesitation or reservation. As a result, the venom that sometimes comes out in online comments is like nothing you’re likely to see in our Letters to the Editor column. And certainly nothing like what those same people would say to your face.
“I see we have alot of people in this town that are complete idiots!” one person commented on a story that drew more than 50 responses before we finally cut off further comment. Sex crimes, the supernatural and the Freightliner Five have been particularly hot topics with online readers. And the long trail of comments each topic attracts reflects the yin and yang of human nature. Some people see the world as black and white. If there’s a crime, they call for swift, terrible punishment; if there’s an out-of-the-mainstream idea, they’re against it. Don’t even get them started on taxes. And they believe anyone who thinks otherwise has a serious mental defectó and are quick to say so.
On the other side are those who talk about tolerance, forgiveness, helping the needy and exploring new ideas. They also think the other side is stupid, but they’re too tactful to say so. (They must count to 10 a lot.)
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Those are the extremes. But amid their points and counterpoints, commentators share useful information.
Friday morning when I checked our site, I was surprised to see that someone had left a comment on “Graduation continues today.” What opinion could that innocuous story prompt?
I was happy to see that one person ó probably a school official ó shared information about shuttles running from surrounding parking lots to Keppel Auditorium. “Take advantage of this free service provided for you and ride in air conditioning,” that person wrote.
And someone else chimed in with advice about where not to park, the lot at the baseball field. (Warning: Speed and anonymity often send concerns about spelling and proofreading out the window, too.) “IF YOU DON’T WANT YOUR CAR TO GET HIT WIL A BALL (IN WITCH ALOT DO) YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO PART THERE AFTER 7,” that person wrote. Thanks. We get the message.
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Newsroom staff members ó different editors at different times ó screen the comments before they show up on the Web. But the Internet is all about interaction and free-flowing information, so we’re sidelining only the most offensive stuff. Figuring out where to draw that line has been a challenge. The spectrum of public commentary runs from red-hot to cool, but there are countless shades of gray in between.
In general, we’re holding out comments that advocate bodily harm, use profanity, accuse uncharged people of committing crimes or otherwise sink to such a low level that they offend even newspaper people.
This is new territory for us and many in our industry. We don’t allow anonymous comments in our letters column, but somehow ó so far ó the Web begs a different standard.
We’ve discussed the possibility of making commentators identify themselves at least to us, through registration, while still allowing them to be anonymous on the site. That might inhibit the most offensive or ó a different twist ó politically manipulative comments. We’re learning as we go, for now.
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The easiest way to see the most recent, most numerous comments is to scroll way down on our homepage to “Latest Commented Stories” and click on the number after the headline that interests you.
The back-and-forth about some stories can become a virtual free-for-all. And it can help people air views and set the record straight.
There’s this on a proposed increase in the tourism tax: “The city council loves to tax people it does not represent and who can not vote for them.” And “Let the tax & spend liberals vote themselves a tax increase.”
And then there’s this: “The majority of the Tourism Board is appointed and controled by Rowan County, not the City of Salisbury….”
Maybe if we go back and forth enough, more people will meet in the middle. Comments, anyone?
– – –
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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