By Richard Mark Kirkner
One town's meager Web space was cluttered with criticisms and kudos - and lots of disparaging comments aimed at local personalities - after a local blogger was outed as a Town Council member last month. Many of these posts have been exercises in poor Web etiquette, particularly in a small town.
The acerbic blogger was anonymous until a local developer identified him as Kendrick Buckwalter, an otherwise mild-mannered Phoenixville councilman.
Buckwalter owned up, but not before his heretofore anonymous posts had derided the council president as a "king" and accused the executive director of the Phoenixville Main Street program of engaging in "double speak." Buckwalter's defenders piled onto the Web site with characterizations of other officials as "snake-oil salesmen."
Buckwalter posted an apology to anyone who was offended by his comments ". . .without my knowing." The apology has not been accepted all around, however.
Phoenixville isn't alone in its Web controversies. After Bristol Township Council member Karen Lipsack turned herself in to Bucks County authorities in April for making threats against a council colleague earlier this year, locals lit up the blog at phillyBurbs.com, using words such as "sneaky" and "mean, miserable old lady" to describe Bristol Township Council members. One chimed in that Bristol Township is the "laughing-stock of the state." To that I say: Get in line. A lot of people feel that way about their town's government.
Has the blogosphere engendered the drive-by character assassination? Such harsh words in small places such as Bristol Township and Phoenixville are bound to bruise egos and generate some flak. It seems the anonymity many blogs offer only encourages bold and outrageous personal attacks.
Blog etiquette - or "net-etiquette" - is about as standardized as law and order in the Wild West. One site, Practical Etiquette e-zine! (http://www.practical
etiquette.com/blog-etiquette.html), offers 10 rules for blog behavior, but says nothing about not trashing your neighbors by name. To the contrary, it offers this rule: "If you post and you want anonymity, don't make any references that might indicate who is posting." Long live the drive-by character assassination.
In one of his postings, blogger Tally Wilgis suggested that bloggers treat others' blogs as their Internet "home." "You wouldn't dare walk into a home and run your mouth at the host. It's inappropriate to do on blogs as well. It's just ugly and you end up looking stupid."
Another rule Wilgis offered: "Any attack on a blog is a public attack." That means, things you might say in a conversation are not always worthy of public discourse. "You can look stupid, no matter how 'valid' your point may be," he said.
Perhaps blog venom is a growing pain of a nascent medium. You don't see these character attacks in newspapers and magazines (although you can find them on some of their Web sites). Letters to the editor typically require a signature, and reporters are taught to avoid anonymous sources. When you put your name on it, you're bound to keep it respectable.
Web space has a much lower talent bar than print or broadcast media. Anyone with a half a thought and a digital spasm can set up a blog or post on someone else's. A newspaper reporter or television correspondent could never call an official a "mean, miserable old lady" by name - at least not without risking a defamation suit.
In a small town, these attacks take on a huge dimension. The person you attack today as "sneaky" or a "snake-oil salesman" might be the guy you bump into at the garden center on Saturday or at your kid's school concert. Tight quarters make for hard feelings.
I like to think local politics can get past personal attacks and focus more on issues. And when the debate ends, cordial relations can still prevail. Judging by the tone of the blogosphere, however, we still have some work to do.