The truly revolutionary aspect of the Internet is the ability for people around the world, from almost every walk of life, to connect online. You learn what people think, from celebrity gossip to scientific innovations and ancient philosophy. Anyone can watch an eyewitness video of breaking news, how to use folk wisdom on dealing with squirrels and find tutorials on solving Algebra problems.
What a comeback!
The Internet is also a place where people can debate one another, weigh in on the worthiness of a piece of art or try out their schtick as an insult comic. In many cases the commentor is anonymous so they are freed from any fear of real-life repercussions or loss of social status. This anonymity, unfortunately, can bring out the worst in some folks, giving them free rein to leave offensive comments that would normally be self-filtered if they were delivered in person.
So how do we approach this free-ranging conversation so that we can engage in the positive aspects of open dialogue? Can we raise the quality of commenting?
Visit safe neighborhoods
Reward news sites, blogs, social media groups that have comment moderation or involved site managers who keep an eye on the content posted. Many sites are using Facebook integration to make people "own" their posted opinions. Others will allow you to report offensive comments so that differences in opinion can be fair game but not speech that would not pass the "sniff test" of community values.
Many sites will often hold comments for moderation, especially for new commenters. This allows the site manager to gauge appropriateness and reduce spammers who try to send you to outside links.
Keep in mind, however, that this doesn't mean that even the most well-meaning site will be able to filter all offensive comments, and that just because someone's ideas may seem "offensive" to you they may not cross the line for everyone.
Think before hitting 'Enter'
Sometimes we need to "check ourselves" by re-reading the comments we post and thinking about the consequences. Often, things meant to be humorous, when viewed without context, smiles or subleties in voice, are simply not funny or appropriate when they appear as simple words on a screen.
Remember, nothing is forgotten on the Internet. Your off-color joke could be found by your employer, your potential significant other, your grandmother, or, more mortifyingly, your kids. If instead of assuming that everything you do is anonymous, think that everything is being recorded for posterity and I am sure that you might second-guess how hilarious you may seem twenty-years from now.
Teach your children well
What your teach your children offline is laying the foundation for their behavior online. Hateful speech is learned from many sources but as a parent you can explain your values and what you will not tolerate from them in your presence. If you discuss why language matters, and how it can hurt, you are preparing them to be able to speak effectively online and in person.
Informal speech and profanity is more accepted in some online neighborhoods. But just like the concept of inside voices versus outside voices is explained to the youngest children, they need to be taught that using slang and profanity, or ignoring all rules of spelling and grammar will cost them credibility and undercut their opinions they are trying to share. We have all seen someone online trying to convince us of the correctness of their position but the use of swear words or indeciferable spelling will cause us to immediately consider their opinions to be born of ignorance. Ask your kids their reaction to those kinds of posts, and I sure they do the same thing.
Don't feed the trolls
The term "troll" refers to a person who is trying to provoke a reaction by posting something that is so off-point, offensive or counter-productive that they know you won't be able to resist addressing them. Resist the urge. What a troll wants is attention. Take Hermione Granger's advice from the Harry Potter books: "Ignore them, ignore them."
If they have violated the sites community policy, do report the post for the sake of others, but if it is just a ridiculous and obviously ignorant comment, don't fall into the troll's trap.
Develop a thick skin
Online conversations are often coarse. People use a lot of profanity even without realizing it. I often find myself getting agitated by a group of what I consider to be ignorant, racist or sexist comments. When that time comes, I can choose to simply not read the comments, leave the page or revolutionarily enough, get up and walk away from the screen. Just because something is written it doesn't mean that I have to read it. Before the internet we didn't know what every random stranger thought about every news story, we still don't need to.
Take the opportunity to learn a different way of thinking
Just as not every ignorant comment requires your attention, take advantage of learning to expand your own world view by learning from the opinions of others. Oftentimes, it seems that people will simply read and react without taking the time to think about the issue.
Maybe your brain to expand to embrace novel concepts. Perhaps others can teach you to look at a topic in a new way. And not just on political or philosophical matters, maybe you can learn to appreciate something that you simply wrote off from whatever previous biases you held. Even something as simple as an online restaurant review might make you willing to give a breakfast place a new try, or to go back and watch films that you assumed would be of no value.
Social media allows us to hold conversations with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences and knowledge that we may not possess. Finding your own way of expressing your voice and finding communities that teach you new ways of enjoying life is the promise of online communities, don't be afraid to join in the conversation.