Back when we accessed the newfangled doohickey called the internet via 14.4K modem, when email was an amazing new way to communicate, it was easy to be excited about the potential for how this new tool could be used for journalism. One of my favorite go-to answers in job interviews in those early days involved discussing how I loved that the World Wide Web offered the immediacy of broadcast and the depth of longform print journalism all at the same time. Plus, the ink was free. So many possibilities!
And indeed the internet has in many ways been a positive for journalism. The low cost of entry (not only is the ink free, you don’t need a printing press) has let many talented independent writers become prominent voices and, in some cases, even media moguls. (I remember when ESPN.com gave a relatively unknown Boston sports blogger a column. Now everyone knows who Bill Simmons is.) It allows for beautifully designed multimedia storytelling. And, heck, it made it a lot easier for us to get The Dispatch off the ground.
But online journalism was still a relatively nascent medium when YouTube, Google, Facebook, and Twitter and similar companies came to prominence in the first decade of the 21st century. And while none of them set out with the intention of influencing our industry, it’s undeniable that they have. Social media gives everyone a voice, which is good! Or could be.
But let’s be honest. The rampant polarization that has so soured the national discourse for so long has been made possible, at least in part, by the fact it’s much easier to sling insults at people from behind a keyboard than in person. And, thanks to the fact that we all have “friends” on social media we’ve never met in real life, and we can see the friends of our friends, you can sling those insults at vastly more people. What’s true on Facebook is true of the comments fields of many publications.