I received a call on Monday afternoon telling me that a friend of the family had been killed while crossing a busy intersection near my house. I tried to find out what happened through the local media, but all I could find from the reporters was a statement that a woman was struck and killed by a garbage truck and no other information was available pending notification of the family.

After checking back an hour later, I did something that I really didn’t want to do… I checked the “comments” section below the online story. What I found showed the power of web 2.0, and both the good and the bad that comes with that power.

From the comments I learned that she was on a bicycle, in the bicycle lane at a red light. She went straight, while the garbage truck made a wide right-hand turn and didn’t see her in the bike lane. Although the results of the accident were tragic, through the comments, the reported story, and from my own personal knowledge, I now had enough information to piece together what had happened. That was the “good” part of Web 2.0 – people on the scene giving accounts of an awful event.

Then came the “bad” part of Web 2.0.

One of the reasons that I hesitate to read comments on news stories like these is that people with no relationship to the story, hiding behind anonymous screen names, decide that what this story needs is their opinion to be heard. To make it worse, their is almost a competition between commenters of who can get the most “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” on their comments from other readers – the more “opinionated” the comment, the more “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” they receive.

A “savvy bicyclist” decided that this was a “teachable moment” and explained that what she should have done was put her bike half-way into the car lane instead of staying in the bike lane. This caused a reaction from another commenter to state how they’ve seen a bunch of “local apartment dwellers” on bikes carelessly cross that intersection and they are not surprised that this happened at all.  Quickly followed up by another commenter that said that idiotic pedestrians are crossing against the red light all the time, and this is probably what happened (although they had no idea if that was true.)

So there I was… facing the “good” and the “bad” of news + Web 2.0. I got a better understanding of what happened – and that was good. I also saw the contempt of the community toward something that they had no understanding of, but still held out their opinions as though they did – and that was bad.

None of the commenters knew that if the young mother of two had made it across that intersection that she would have reported for her first day at a new job. None of those commenting knew that it was her son’s birthday. None of those commenting had to come home tonight and tell their children that their friend’s mom died today. None of those commenting had to watch their own children Facebook chat with a grieving friend who said that she’d be out of school for a while until after her mom’s funeral.

In a Web 2.0 world, everyone has the ability to share their comments with the world. Most of the time I would give it a thumbs-up… but I have to admit that I don’t feel as good about it right now.

  • Greg,
    Thank you for sharing this story. Nothing is less virtual than experiencing a tragedy and others' treatment of it as virtual is challenging, to say the least. I'm truly sorry for your loss.

  • Greg: So sorry to hear you are connected to this story. I read about it and the initial information was spotty. I agree, as a lawyer, I find that we get a big chunk of "bad" news commenting backlash when we are in the media spotlight although we are only there when helping people who want our help.

  • Anonymous

    In a recent Pew Internet Research Study they listed one of the roles for librarians to guide on the ethics of being online. This is a perfect example.

  • Greg,

    I truly am sorry for the loss of your friend.

    And yes to all that you said. Yet here we are talking about it on the Web.

    Isn't that the nature of 'news' — that it provokes anxiety? Otherwise it wouldn't qualify as 'news'.

    People then do about 'news' what they have always done — try to reduce their anxiety by imagining controls that fend off mortality. Only difference now is we all have megaphones to broadcast our anxieties and imagined controls.

    Consider: 'Number of comments' as a metric for high anxiety. This includes my own comment.

  • Thanks for sharing your words with us. Losing someone you love is an aspect of life you never want to face. It's something many fear, most have been touched by, and all will one day experience.