The Net platform for abusive feedback

It used to be that, every once a while, journalists would receive hate mail from readers irate over opinions expressed in their column or commentary pieces. Inevitably, I've received my fair share, too, over the years.

It used to be that, every once a while, journalists would receive hate mail from readers irate over opinions expressed in their column or commentary pieces. Inevitably, I've received my fair share, too, over the years.

Fortunately, those flaming letters were few and far between, but not because journalists were such well-loved creatures.

Rather, it's because it takes considerable effort for someone to pick up a pen and paper, muster up the nastiest insults he can think of--without crossing the lines of defamation--place the letter in an envelop, stick on a stamp, and walk out to a mailbox to post it. He could fax the note over to the newsroom, too, but writing up the letter would still take some time.

Readers these days have it so much easier, thanks to the Internet. They can blog about their displeasure, berate the journalist in online forums or chatrooms, or post their comments on the online feedback channel.

They can do so in a matter of minutes--no need for pen and paper--and from the comfort of their own home.

This new mode of feedback has encouraged more readers to give their two cents' worth, and man, the amount of hate mail penned by the Net generation has definitely skyrocketed. Not just that, reader comments have become nastier and more malicious--and in some cases, just downright abusive.

Take, for example, a post published this week by ZDNet Asia blogger Melvin Calimag, where he questioned Apple icon Steve Jobs' seemingly lacking inclination toward philanthropic activities.

Melvin's blog entry provoked a string of angry responses from readers, chiding him for being "ignorant" and "lazy".

Responses from one reader, in particular, resorted to name-calling and hurled offensive remarks about our blogger. Constructive criticism would have made a better and stronger statement, but the reader obviously didn't subscribe to this philosophy.

However, against perhaps my better judgment, I don't think his fiery outburst should necessarily reflect a foul personality.

Because it's so easy to simply write the first thing that comes to mind and hit the "send" button in mere seconds, some reader responses are highly emotional and ferocious. But, their reaction could have been more restrained if they'd allowed themselves to regain some composure and rethink their response before submitting it.

We have the opportunity to do that with a pen and read and re-read our mail, and rethink comments that on second thought, may suddenly seem too vulgar.

With the Internet highway, well, it has become just too easy for anyone to speak before they think.

Fortunately, most journalists are thick-skinned cynics accustomed to having to deal with heavy criticism and the most vicious of hate mail.

But, that's not always true for the general community--in particular, teenagers struggling to cope with their adolescent years. In the case of 13-year-old American Megan Meier, the struggle ended in her suicide because the teenager--who suffered from depression--couldn't bear the hateful comments sent to her from a friend on MySpace.

Quarrels are not uncommon among school-going kids, but this supposed MySpace friend of Megan's was a fictitious person created by two adults.

Describing the act as "absolutely vile", Megan's parents have vowed to take the culprits to task and are hoping that criminal or civil charges can be brought against them for online harassment.

Whether they will succeed in doing so remains to be seen, but this sad turn of events highlights the perils of cyber-bullying and Internet abuse.

It serves as timely reminder why, in spite of the instant gratification Netizens get from articulating their contempt when they disagree with another's viewpoints, exercising some restraint and social responsibility is a necessary virtue.

So does the Internet only serve to highlight man's ability to be most cruel?

Of course, not.

It can also demonstrate the willingness of some organizations, including government agencies, to laugh at themselves. Just check out this video clip from Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA). It's a hoot!

Some may disagree, but I think this MDA marketing initiative is the result of taxpayers' money well spent.