Jonathan Freedland recently addressed the issue of civility in online debate (The blogosphere risks putting off everyone but point-scoring males, Comment, Guardian, April 11, 2007).
In his considered reflections on democracy and online debate, Freedland is right to note that “the more democratic encounter is the meeting properly chaired, allowing everyone their say”. Media and other organisations developing online complements to their real world activities would do well to replicate in the former the formats that have successfully evolved in the latter.
However, Freedland then advocates the blogosphere concept of moderation in place of the real world format of chairing that he rightly values. Online debate hosted by media organisations really does need more chairing and, as happens at a public meeting in the real world, more response from the writers and presenters to who people are responding.
We should also bear in mind that the lowering of the quality and civility of debate is not the sole responsibility of those occupying the blogosphere. Among some established commentators and politicians there has also been a tendency to debate at the level of personality rather than ideas, to use pejorative language and infer guilt by association, and to ignore or dismiss good counter-arguments. It is up to the media and our political class to lead the blogosphere back to more civil, informed and thoughtful debate.
Published, in edited form, in the Guardian, Letters ‘Democracy in cyber-space’, April 16, 2007. Note the following letter draws out one of my points, albeit more crudely and with a specific target. I also posted my comments in the comments following Freedland’s article. No direct responses have been posted.