Anyone who has gone public on the Internet – published an article, posted a blog, tweeted a thought, or perhaps just stuck a new photo on Facebook – knows what might come next: praise perhaps, some good-natured ribbing, maybe a mild put-down. That’s life on the World Wide Web. But sometimes things get worse: Racist, sexist, abusive, and all manner of transgressive comments can issue forth from the Internet’s dark side, where taunting, badgering, insulting, and threatening are considered LOL fun.
That, too, is life on the World Wide Web. In a Monitor cover story (click here), Harry Bruinius examines the perils of instant publishing – of saying things via social media that in the past an editor, adviser, or friend might have dissuaded you from saying – and of the instant and sometimes disturbing feedback it can generate.

Feedback is a good thing. Journalists, for instance, value readers who point out mistakes, question assumptions, and make suggestions. I’ve met the nicest people that way. Readers who represent causes or hold strong political views are worth listening to as well. Even if they are not persuasive, they are a reminder of the wide variety of human interests and opinions, evidence of thinking and caring and not just watching the world roll by. If some critics are a bit more personal and pointed, well, they, too, have the right to speak their piece, whether they are listened to or not.

And then there are “trolls,” habitués of not-nice-at-all social media sites such as Reddit’s 4chan, members of the loosely affiliated Anonymous hacker group, organizers of cyber mobs. They are the anarchists of the Web. But they, too, come with the Internet package. As Whitney Phillips argues in her trenchant and (excellently titled) book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” trolls use mainstream social media to comment on and mock – often in wildly inappropriate and indecent ways – the mainstream media, which itself often skirts the edges of propriety and decency for commercial purposes.
Social media bring newer, faster ways of talking, venting, and criticizing. But catcalling and jeering go far back in time. Demeaning a baseball umpire from the cheap seats is at least as old as the American national pastime. Real rotten tomatoes were hurled at bad stage performers long before the movie site was invented. Like pornography, religious insults, and other activities that shock and offend, trolling exists in the margins provided by free speech. Outlawing, regulating, or otherwise trying to control online discourse runs obvious risks.
So what’s to be done? Shaming is unlikely to dissuade the shameless. Ignoring the trolls is a good idea if you have thick skin, but that’s not always an option. Young people, minority populations, disabled people, and others who feel vulnerable can be deeply, sometimes tragically, affected by what is said about them.

Only one rule ever really works. It doesn’t cure problems overnight. It doesn’t make every troll go away. But with enough people being civil and decent on the Web because they want others to be that way, social media can become more social.