I recently wrote my first article for On Line Opinion. The whole process was a bit of a roller coaster ride. I went from elation to deflation in a relatively short space of time. The experience left me wondering about the purpose of On Line Opinion and what opportunities it offers us. I begin here with some personal reflections and move on to suggest ways that a website like On Line Opinion can affect our society in very positive ways.
My impetus to write the article came when I found myself voteless for the first time in my life. I don’t have a vote in Ireland because I’m overseas and I don’t have a vote in Australia because I’m not a citizen. I felt voiceless and disempowered and I had a yearning to do something positive about it. I set to work doing some research, writing the short article and submitting it to On Line Opinion. I thoroughly enjoyed the process and drove my friends and family a little crazy asking them for their opinions on the issues. Not all of them agreed with my views.
When the article was accepted I felt very excited that my ideas would be out in the public domain and delighted that I might get some feedback. I was particularly interested to get feedback from people who disagreed with me. I had found little information about why citizenship is the best criteria for voting and I hoped for some good explanations and counter-arguments.
I did get some responses to my article. Most of them were negative and some were quite rude and disrespectful. At the end of the process, having gone from feelings of disempowerment to those of optimism and excitement, I was left feeling deflated. I wondered what the point of On Line Opinion was. I did get some useful suggestions for further reading, which were very helpful, but some people who commented obviously hadn’t read the article at all. Some just dismissed the ideas as ridiculous but didn’t specify why.
I am puzzled by the tone of the responses. The topic I wrote about - non-citizen voting rights - is pretty contentious but why can’t we discuss these things in a respectful way on an online forum which is specifically designed for that purpose? Many of the comments gave very strong and emotive opinions against mine but they offered little in the way of constructive counter-arguments. I reckon if we could discuss these kinds of topics, with useful arguments for and against the issues, then it could benefit society in a massive way and be empowering for everybody. We are so fortunate to have rights to express ourselves so freely. I hoped for more engagement with the issues I wrote about.
I then had the idea that meeting face-to-face with those who commented might be productive. I thought that if we could meet they would hopefully understand that I wasn’t trying to push my views down their throats. I figured from many of the responses that they must have had this impression. I also thought that if we could meet each other then there probably wouldn’t be so much rudeness and the discussion about the issues might be more constructive. On an online forum like this we lack the benefit of body language, tone of voice and eye-contact to ensure people that we are speaking from a position of respect for other points of view. In a face-to-face meeting I would hopefully assure people that this was my approach.
I could have got involved in the comment thread attached to the article but I wasn’t sure how useful that would be. At the time, when the thread was current, it felt like the online equivalent of sneering at each other. I also wondered whether the nature of many of the comments put other people off writing a comment of their own. I have had this experience on other websites in the past.
So, how can a site like On Line Opinion really benefit our society?
In his recent article celebrating ten years of On Line Opinion Graham Young said that the founders “thought it would provide a venue where the whole resources of the community could be brought to bear on common problems when and as they arose. We thought it could add to social capital by increasing civility and understanding”.
Young suggested that On Line Opinion has not yet managed to do this. He is also nervous about the future - worried about “undermining the institutions, like newspapers, that used to provide checks on what found its way into the public domain”.
I would suggest that it is possible for websites such as On Line Opinion to increase civility and understanding and democratise further the society in which we live. I would also suggest that in order to bring this about it is up to each individual to take responsibility for the ways that they engage with that society. Writing, reading and responding to articles carefully is a way for us all to empower and educate ourselves. Respectfully disagreeing, and giving reasons why, is another way. Approaching On Line Opinion with an open mind and with respect is a very important way in which we can bring more open-mindedness and respect into our society as a whole.
On Line Opinion can impact on society in another way. More and more, traditional media outlets are watching forums such as On Line Opinion. The topics written about and commented on provide them with public opinion on issues which can then provide angles for stories. Contributors to On Line Opinion have the opportunity to lead the media in a positive direction, away from sensationalism and knee-jerk reactions towards deeper understanding and engagement with social issues.
We are fortunate to live at a time when we can put our ideas out into the public domain. A website like On Line Opinion provides us with a place where we can all speak and be heard. In this sense it can be democratising. All that is left is for us to take this opportunity seriously.
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