Cyber-squeaking = not helpful

I moved from Galveston to Atlanta last February. I love my island and quickly adopted the habit of reading the Galveston Daily News online a couple of times a week to appease my homesickness.

It didn’t take long for me to notice a pattern in the online comments about a few apparently salacious subjects: the democratically elected yet unpaid Mayor & City Council, who should live on the island and who should pick them (seriously?), East End-West End relations, Houston area collaboration, progress in general… okay, change of any kind. The public remarks were and are consistently negative, critical, angry, bitter, regressive, and completely not helpful. It made me sad to think the island that showed so much promise and was given seemingly endless opportunity to improve after Hurricane Ike was instead in the radical free-fall that the comments implied.

Imagine my surprise when I visited Galveston last month: The island looks terrific — cleaner, greener, with Seawall enhancements, new restaurants, bars, and shops, the Pleasure Pier is underway, and the Fishing Pier is open! When I talked to people, they were enthusiastic about moving forward with the progressive GHA mixed-income and scattered-site housing plans and thought Mayor Jaworski was doing a great job, especially in light of the constant distractions generated by the GDN gadflies who just want him gone for reasons between them and their God, truth and progress be damned — not unlike the President trying to do business with the Congress these days. I also learned from a credible source that the new GDN publisher had discovered some online commentators who were writing under multiple pseudonyms from the same IP address, which would imply one person writing as many, and banned them from future posting.

So when I got home, I wondered what it was that had given me the impression that Galveston was in such sad shape. I scoured the online comments going back several months, and even accounting for the multiple personality blogger who is no longer with us, I counted roughly a dozen individuals who consistently dominate the forums. These people are the uniformly negative, critical, angry, bitter, regressive, and completely not helpful ones who’d skewed my perspective from a distance. When someone disagrees with them, they vivisect them and effectively throw them out of the room. It’s no wonder people believe them when they claim to speak for the majority — they’ve made the GDN their personal coffee shop and nobody else ever gets heard! There’s no such thing as a civil debate or discourse. No polite disagreement. No agreement to disagree. And certainly no compromise. It’s their way or their way and, frankly, most folks just don’t have the time or inclination to mess with them.

Incidentally, none of them has agreed to serve in public office and be held to their own level of resentful scrutiny for no pay. These are not the sorts of squeaky wheels that get out there and do something and create positive change through their squeaking. These are cyber-squeakers — the type that hide behind their keyboards and aliases and get their jollies from being mean and obnoxious and anonymous. It’s cowardly, if you ask me.

But when well-meaning people stop speaking out because the other side has made it too unpleasant, the other side wins by default and then calls it a mandate. These are the same squeaky wheels who, just by squeaking — certainly not by application of fact-based reason, logic and common sense — overturned the tremendously popular smoking ban instituted after the storm by Mayor Thomas and her Council and supported by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, physicians and researchers from UTMB, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce, the tourist board/visitors bureau, hotel & motel representatives, restaurant owners, citizens from all walks of life, and the list goes on. For a few months, we were leaders on a no-brainer issue that is now just moments away, in the scheme of things, from being the law of the land, and we gave it up just to make the squeaking stop. How does THAT make sense?

So I wondered why the GDN, especially now that it’s under new management with a shiny new logo, has allowed these nasty cyber-bullies to commandeer the online paper? Even I, who know the island, was influenced by their rants. Can you imagine what people who are considering moving or visiting or investing there must think? And can you imagine the influence these few voices illegitimately amplified to sound like many have on island politics when fewer than ten votes can decide an election?

Years ago, I was published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Each time, someone from the paper’s editorial staff called me, interviewed me, checked my references — in short, fully vetted me before publishing my thoughts and words. Were my ideas advancing the conversation or was I seeking personal grandeur or ax-grinding? Was I a credible mouthpiece for my position? Was the paper better off, or at least not worse off, for having associated itself with me?

I understand that the Internet is a grand experiment and I am a rabid First Amendment defender. This is not a free speech issue. Newspapers have a responsibility to manage their own content across all their vehicles just like they did when we only had print, and that includes what they allow people to publish unedited and unscrubbed on the paper’s “walls,” walls that will remain in the online archives for posterity (and show up in your grandkid’s termpaper as a “source” someday). The paper is privately owned. The paper is allowed to publish what it wants. That is the free speech issue.

I would like to think that the GDN might change its “anything goes” policy for the sake of its own reputation, island PR, and the sanctity of the election process, if nothing else, but my guess is it enjoys the readership it gets from the prurient factor, which would explain last week’s GHA “poll.” Again, completely not helpful; advanced nothing; gave the twelve squeakers something to do — voting from all their devices on every IP address they could connect to. Results: garbage.

So until that unlikely day, I challenge the rest of you who, like me, burn inside while reading those twelve people’s rants to write your own letters to the GDN, and take back the paper from the squeaky wheels. Don’t let them ruin another day.

By the way, I fully expect the wrath of the squeaky wheels to rain down upon me for speaking my piece. I invite you to defend my words if you share my perspective. Meanwhile, I’m putting on my hard hat and going offline.

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  1. #1 by Michael P on January 23, 2012 - 9:56 am

    Right On!

  2. #2 by Go Jo on January 24, 2012 - 5:28 pm

    Aren’t you working for the Jaworski campaign?

    • #3 by Alice Melott on January 25, 2012 - 5:44 am

      No. Never have worked for any campaign. Don’t even live in Galveston anymore.

  3. #4 by BCS on February 8, 2012 - 8:32 am

    omg! yes, I am always amazed at the amount of negative I hear about the Island…and I always ask when was the last time you were there…oh years ago. and I say you need to go back! It’s a great place to be.

  4. #5 by Adair on July 6, 2012 - 11:56 am

    Alice, I completely agree about the nature of so many of the online comments about newspaper articles – there seem to be a number of anonymous and cruel (and speculative and unsubstantiated) “regulars” and they write the most vicious sorts of things. You should read them in the Times-Picayune’s affiliated website, I don’t know what the editor’s responsiblities there are; my own sense of responsibility is thaat I don’t ever read them any more. As for letters to the editor – I would think – hope – that a responsible editor would try to publish all letters, especially the signed ones, but if the paper has a large circulation, there just isn’t room, so someone has to make some decisions; an old friend of mine has that job with a VERY large newspaper, and tries to choose letters coveering all angles of any controversy, as well as particularly well-written letters.

  5. #6 by Alex on July 6, 2012 - 11:57 am

    My theory about invective people is that they are “old children” who never felt like they got their fair share of the attention cookie jar. They want attention and when they don’t get it, they ratchet up the vile bile until they do.

    Once one puts oneself out as a “public figure”, it’s much more difficult to legally pursue violations of privacy or defamation. They know this. I am afraid my dear that you have become by your actions, a “public figure.” Anyone worth their human resource salt knows that the wackos are at work on the internet attacking any public figure they choose.

    My best advice:
    1- Ignore the screaming two-year-old whose limited language skills prevent them from participating in a reasonable discussion.
    2- Add “public figure” to your resume.

  6. #7 by Janet on July 6, 2012 - 11:57 am

    Well said, Alice.

  7. #8 by Kevin on July 6, 2012 - 11:58 am

    Neither civil discourse nor common decency can be legislated, only encouraged and nurtured. We are free to express our opinions and free to ignore the opinions of others. As Oscar Wilde said, “Arguments are extremely vulgar, because everyone in good society has the same opinion”. If there is no legal recourse to remedy the damage from the slurs of the anonymous, then it would seem our choice is to weigh the risks of being opinionated against the discomfort of silence. Who would have guessed that a start-up company could have raised millions of dollars in venture capital by selling a service that makes you look good when someone does a Google search on you? Its the Wild, Wild Web and the social implications are . Thanks for encouraging thinking Alice!

  8. #9 by Kevin on July 6, 2012 - 11:58 am

    I cleverly (not so much) used HTML tag delimiters in my next to last sentence, which should read “…the social implications are “fill in the blank, there are many opinions”. HINT: Don’t use the greater than or less than signs on blog replies…

  9. #10 by Diane on July 6, 2012 - 11:58 am

    There are up positives and negatives to our relatively recent cultural turns towards more free & open discourse on subjects previously taboo, promulgated initially by talk shows like Phil Donahue & Oprah. Unfortunately, to get on air, competitors such as Maury and Jerry Springer had to “up the ante” and add more shock value bringing either more difficult topics or less socially acceptable witnesses, thereby allowing us all to feel better about ourselves, if only in comparison. Then, to stay on air, these same trash talk shows had to continually up the previously upped ante and the downward spiral thus created has continued unabated. We now are subjected to politicians who use this same strategy to get their campaign sound bites, confident that we will not collectively fact-check their allegations against each other.

    To be heard today, it seems that the most important factor is not how well thought out your points or carefully chosen your words may be. Rather, it is most important to yell the loudest, accuse most outlandishly, and, in attempted blue humor, use the most vulgar analogy. I have rarely entered into political discussions in my life because I have witnessed too many who believe that “if you’re not with me you are against me” and all who believe otherwise are evil. I do relish a good political debate, but good debates are so profoundly rare that it is a pleasure I have been able to partake of only a handful of times in my life.

    It is a reality that makes me profoundly sad, but one that I do strive to change at every opportunity. If I can loosen the grip of this malady on only one person, I believe I may have left this world a better place. Remain strong, Alice. Lead by example and join me in being prepared to be there for those who would trash us, for someday they too will get trashed and may need an understanding and empathetic person to show them a better way.

  10. #11 by Amanda on July 6, 2012 - 11:59 am

    Thank you, Alice. It seems that there are many silent voices that are seeing the same thing on that forum and tired of the bully mentality.

  11. #12 by Judith on July 6, 2012 - 11:59 am

    Thank you Ms. Melott. And, for the most part, I agree completely. I think many men and some women still have problems with strong women so they compensate by calling them a B###h. It may be a throwback to the era when women were mindless and subservient while bowing to whatever their mate said. It appears from what I hear in speeches, articles, etc., many of the evangelical, so-called Christians seem to believe it the most.

    Mr. Folkstag, since ‘this is just a little ‘ol community newspaper forum,’ does that mean civility should be excused? Or is this just the way you speak to everyone you know? This has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative or an R or a D, but it is about being civil to people who live in the same community and not some anonymous person on an AOL website. If I did not want to hear opposing opinions I would not bother to post, but I do not deserve to be called names like communist and racist by people whom I have never met. If that is to be the prevailing attitude, I will just bow out and leave it to what seems to be the dirty dozen who sit before their keyboards tapping out the same old attitude over and over and over again.

  12. #13 by mary lee on July 6, 2012 - 12:00 pm

    Way to go Alice. watch those negative people implode themselves…it’s only a matter of time. The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I feel sorry for them.

  13. #14 by Holly on July 6, 2012 - 12:00 pm

    Imagine if newspaper websites limited comments to traditional op-ed pieces, and people who wanted to simply grouse had to at least set up their own blogs and websites to do it.

    Imagine personal accountability – I get that there are reasons for writing pseudonymously, at least in countries where there are no Constitutional guarantees of free expression of ideas. But when it comes to the U.S. and snarky comments on others’ sites, we all just “consider the source” and say “Fine, whatever – when you feel strongly enough about this to use your real identity – like some of our founding fathers who risked DEATH to sign our Declaration of Independence because it was really that important to them to go on record and back up their words with action – then, and only then, will we listen and take you seriously.”

    I realize it’s hard for the average reader to make that distinction – to know what IP addresses are being used (and how do we know that these were NOT 12 individuals commenting from the library?) – but the other point you make is that consistent negativity, without contributing constructive ideas or personal action, is not helpful. It doesn’t deserve a seat at the grown-ups’ table.

  14. #15 by Karen C. on July 6, 2012 - 12:00 pm

    Alice Mellott, I don’t know you, but thank ya! To be honest, I thought it was just me realizing that GDN online had been hijacked. I’ve lived on this island for 11 years and watched the few speak for the many – and usually incorrectly. I love this island, and encourage all of my friends to make it their home any time I get the chance. But the unabashed nastiness we see at GDN online is reflective of what we see nationally – just with a Gulf Coast flavor!

  15. #16 by Elizabeth on July 6, 2012 - 12:01 pm

    Excellent thoughts! I shared on Facebook.

  16. #17 by Amanda on July 6, 2012 - 12:01 pm

    It is so disheartening to read that negative garbage day after day. It is time for all of us that have been intimidated or worn down by these ignorant people to fight back with facts and information. We can’t let them keep delaying progress.

  17. #18 by Johnston on July 6, 2012 - 12:02 pm

    Hello, Alice.

    Great piece. These are the folks I strive to enlighten every day in my position as Communications Specialist at Galveston ISD, which before I got here in 2008 suffered from negative perception perpetuated by these persons you write about.

    So what did I do? Albeit controversial at the time among GISD leadership who would rather ignore these folks, I started responding directly to their posts.

    Here’s my secret: each time one of the makes a negative, misinformed comment, it gives me an opportunity to politely and cordially speak the truth and let those who read the forums know what is going on within my organization from a credible source.

    It has done wonders for the perception of my school district within the community.

    In fact, I recently received a call from a public relations officer in Chicago who saw some of my posts. She was going through the same issue in her district and wanted to know how this strategy has worked.

    The Internet and blogs are the next frontier of journalism. It gives the public a chance to make comments about a story or issue immediately and without repercussion on themselves. Many people feel they are safe in their own homes, behind the cover of their computer screens.

    My job is to respectfully present the facts. When faced with backed-up information from a credible source, those negative posters often back down. They may not become your best friends – in fact, they might try to drag you down by personally attacking you, revealing their true nature. But they cannot argue against facts. Remain professional and you will win out in the end.

    When the cyber-squeakers get down and dirty, you will often find others defending you and calling out the negative posters for who they truly are.

  18. #19 by Jeff on July 6, 2012 - 12:02 pm

    THANK you!!

  19. #20 by Jeff on July 6, 2012 - 12:02 pm

    For the first time in a while, I’m reading comments that don’t make my blood boil. Thanks Johnston and Allice.

  20. #21 by Johnston on July 6, 2012 - 12:02 pm

    This is how I try to create a dialogue with the posters:

  21. #22 by Martha on July 6, 2012 - 12:03 pm

    This is a wonderful piece and I thank you for writing it! I do not live on the island, but I do work there, spend lots of dollars there, and have been in love with Galveston since 1966 when I first traveled down Broadway, eventually to the beach. Through the years, I have followed what happens there religiously, mostly because I look at Galveston as a friend I care about. And mostly through the years, I have often come away with a sense of dismay after reading the critical, never satisfied, and often mean and so lacking in compassion, postings that appear on the GDN forum. I also have many friends who live on the island; they have certainly provided me with a sense of this tug of war that goes on, year after year. I have not felt privileged to comment since I am not a voter there, plus have witnessed the vilification of those who are not from there and dare to comment. And since I have worked closely with an unpopular (to the malcontents anyway) group of people just trying to live their lives, I have a strong sense of this tug of war (my words, not theirs) my friends refer to. Thanks for articulating what I have not been able to do. Shows just how potentially influential just a few malcontents can be.

  22. #23 by Valerie on July 6, 2012 - 12:03 pm

    You are soooo right!! The ugliness and hatefullness expressed day in and day out…such negativity all the time. I have gotten to where I almost dread viewing the comments thinking “okay, here we go again” ..before I even read them – knowing the same ones will be there spouting ugliness and stupidity, bias, etc., instead of well-meaning, well-informed opinions. Very glad to hear they’re attempting to clean house as you mentioned.

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