published Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Kennedy: Friends online and in the flesh

Every year, my Sunday school class has a New Year's Eve party. It's a typical, suburban get-together. All the kids play upstairs while the grown-ups eat sausage balls and watch football.

This year the host contacted everyone days beforehand and made a request: "Email or text me an unbelievable factoid about yourself that no one else knows."

When we arrived at the party, the host handed out sheets of paper listing the fun facts, along with 22 names of people in our group. The object of the game was to match names and strange facts.

Some of my favorites were:

* I swallowed a screwdriver in kindergarten."

* A family member gave me a goat as a birthday present when I was 12."

* I have an inflamed uvula and have considered having it removed."

OK.

I quickly found a spot on the couch and went to work on my name-matching game sheet, confident of victory.

Our church group follows a roundtable discussion format. In the 10 years my wife and I have been attending, we have heard the life stories of almost everyone in the room -- including their views on politics, their philosophies on child-rearing, their family histories, everything.

Most weeks we chat about current events. Liberal and conservative ideas collide, and yet we exchange handshakes and pats on the back at the end of the hour.

After a few years, you think you know everything about everybody. I figured that by deductive reasoning, I could match at least half of names with the correct fun facts in our New Year's Eve game.

Wrong. I got only two right: mine and my wife's. The winner got about one-third correct.

Even among people we consider close friends, we only scratch the surface of shared experiences. Still, exchanging ideas and emotions with people you know and trust -- even on volatile topics such as politics and religion -- is a basic human need.

I had the Sunday school New Year's Eve party on my mind this week as I read the reaction on the Times Free Press website to the announcement that the newspaper has discontinued reader comments on news stories. The new policy is to limit online comments, which are mostly anonymous and often acrimonious, to opinion pieces such as personal columns and editorials.

As I read the reader comments below the new policy announcement, 134 at last count, I realized that another roundtable discussion group was disbanding, or at least relocating.

In the end, it was like the stroke of midnight at a masquerade party; but instead of taking off their masks, everyone just shuffled toward the exits, with parting comments that were peppered with melancholy, resignation and/or defiance.

Alison Gerber, the newspaper's managing editor, noted in a column announcing the change that "too often the online conversations descend into poisonous exchanges that are cruel, rage-filled and racist."

Almost all the readers posting comments go by screen names such as nucanuck, wyldmon, pizzaguy, rolando, crow1033, sage1. Many of them are thoughtful and full of insights. Some have keen debating skills and razor-sharp wits. And to be fair, they played by the rules they were given.

Still, when you combine anonymity with free speech, things can go sour. Or as one reader pointed out last week: "Comments are often made (online) that would not be made face to face because of anonymity."

Let me be a rebel in my own shop and suggest that the newspaper sets a bad example by carrying on a worn-out tradition of unsigned editorials. To think that a modern newspaper speaks with some "Wizard of Oz" voice on matters of public policy is just silly.

Still, my fear is that anonymous online communities, such as newspaper comment threads, are becoming substitutes for traditional American forums such as Sunday school classes, civic organizations, book clubs, VFW halls and barbershops. Even on Facebook, you generally know who you're talking to.

Maybe I'm old school, but I believe the price of free speech has been paid for with American blood, and we honor that privilege by owning our opinions.

Eyes up, chest out, handshake extended.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MarkKennedyTFP or on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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