To join the conversation, click on the link below
Does the Internet lead to bad manners? I began to wonder about it last week, when a friend called asking if I had seen the Sunday Boston Globe story about the two rapes. I had not. He suggested I look it up online.
Like most Boston Globe stories that take place out here in the provinces, there were problems in tone. Over the years Globe reporters dispatched to the island have left their office on Morrissey Boulevard with the headline already in their heads and simply filled in the blanks.
The facts are generally correct, but the hole in the story is the lack of a true understanding of this place. Probably the same thing that people in Maine notice in stories about their hometowns.
The last one was about the rat population here, as if for some reason there should be no rats on Nantucket even though they are everywhere else. Or as if it had become a public health problem. Or as if this were some big news that nobody knew about before. Such stories seem like a waste of editorial space, but what do I know?
Nantucket has a very definite image on the mainland, which is no less frustrating for being true three months of the year. But in general this was just a story about something I already knew about. I told my friend as much and he suggested I scroll down to the readers’ comments.
These days you can e-mail in a comment on newspaper stories. Often stories carry not only the reporter’s byline on the top, but a little slug with his e-mail on the bottom. This is supposed to allow for two-way communication with the readers.
In fact, you can do the very same thing after reading this blog, which has opened my eyes to how it can work to expand the conversation. So far, so good. Then I read the comments at the end of the Globe story.
The first few were filled with the sort of uninformed assumptions that you often see in this sort of Internet back-and-forth. The kind of thing some well-meaning, know-it-all might say in person, thinking he was being helpful. There were a couple of pithy comments urging us all to “sell now before housing values fall any further.”
Then there was this: “Perhaps the most over-rated place in the world. I have been to Nantucket and could never understand the big attraction. It some ways with all the exclusivity and pretentiousness, it is satisfying to see its demise.”
There were a handful of the usual undocumented immigrant screeds. There were a handful of screeds calling islanders “liberal commies” who have our heads buried in the sand.
There was the political argument that began with this statement: “You’d think there would be enough rich people in Nantucket to get pissed off, demand action, ramp up police presence.” It then went on to place the evil that is rape squarely where it belongs. On property taxes.
Then there were the garden-variety, mean-spirited comments like this one: “Let’s see, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the residents of Nantucket because they have to live like everyone else? By locking their doors and being more aware of their surroundings? Poor people! Welcome to the real world!”
It went downhill from there. The point is not that people were indulging in Nantucket-bashing. Some comments actually had a point, and some reminded others commenting that this was, after all, a story of two horrible crimes.
But most of them were filled with enough vitriol that if you went on like that in public people would cross the street to avoid you. If you began to loudly spew some of these comments in your local bar, you might get punched in the mouth or shut off by the bartender, and possibly both.
So what is it about the Internet? Is it the anonymity that makes people forget to keep a civil tongue in their heads? Could it be that this experiment of a two-way conversation with readers is flawed?
I have always liked to say that the best stories come from average people. But those responses to the Globe story made me realize something. I was wrong. Good stories do not come from average people.
I realized that where I have always gone for stories was to people who I respected. Maybe because they had a clear understanding of the world around them and their place in it. Maybe because they shouldered hard times with dignity. Maybe because they added something to their community and asked nothing in return.
Some of them have walked the halls of power or academia and not allowed it to go to their heads; some worked with their hands and saw themselves as simply working people. None of them were average. Wherever you find those qualities they are not average.
In the end I can not get over the idea that there is something important in looking a man in the eye when you are trying to gauge the worth of his opinion. Isn’t that one of the reasons we choose to live in a small town? And maybe that is what the Internet lacks. A filter for all the noise.
– John Stanton