from Yahoo! Internet Life, November 2001

Across the Boards
By Janelle Brown

Message boards across the Web were an immediate source of comfort in the aftermath of the attack. But that is only half the story

"Seek out all those that do not believe in Christ and eliminate them. For if they do not believe in Christ, they do not believe in me. Purge our society of these rodents." The World Trade Center had collapsed merely hours earlier. Authorities were already implicating Osama bin Laden or some other Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, so I wasn't surprised to find this kind of anti-Muslim sentiment bubbling up online. But I was surprised by the venue: The post came from Craigslist, one of San Francisco's larger online communities, a gentle and liberal bulletin board on a site founded by apple-cheeked activist Craig Newmark.

Within minutes of the news, Newmark had put up a bulletin board for the mourning online community. He was not alone, as people flocked to message boards on the Web. On Beliefnet, people of all faiths put aside their religious differences in a community outpouring of grief, filling hundreds of pages of posts with prayers and well-wishes to the suffering - regardless of which deity they might pray to. "I send my love to those who grieve, my strength to those who labor, my gratitude to all who stand together with me in horror at man's inhumanity to man," wrote one visitor whose sentiments echoed throughout the boards. "May healing and peace begin to grow from the rubble of so many unfinished dreams."

"Pointing fingers does not help anyone in this time of global suffering," wrote PeaceMama on Craigslist. "This event is not national, we are not alone on our planet. It is our duty to God and our children to behave responsibly and with nobility, to rise above the hate and racism."

"Violence begets violence, hate begets hate," added another surfer. "There is no excuse for these actions. But there is also no reason to allow rage and fury to take center stage."

Often, however, rage and fury did take center stage. It took only a few hundred posts for the shock and sadness to be infiltrated by hatred, xenophobia, and threats. Posters with nicknames such as IslamHater and ProudAmerican demanded that we revoke Arab visas, close the borders, boycott Arab businesses, and indiscriminately bomb Middle Eastern countries. A typical, less than eloquent (and less than literate) post: "If you see any of these [Arab] piss-ant's from now on, lets strip off their head-wear, men and women and spit on their faces. They should leave this country. Now."

It was the ugly side of human nature, as well as a disconcerting reminder about the essence of public bulletin boards. These spaces are the Web's truly democratic communities: Unlike private e-mail exchanges or mailing lists or chatrooms, bulletin boards are permanent, generally unmoderated, and very public. For better or worse, they are also usually anonymous. It's easy for a few active xenophobes or other troublemakers to pounce on an otherwise rational discussion and quickly overwhelm the conversation with their bile. Eventually, Newmark had to post a plea to his own community: "As rumors fly about the perpetrators, let's not compound this terrible tragedy by bashing ethnic or religious groups for the acts of fringe extremists."

Craigslist wasn't the only community to suffer these postings. They popped up everywhere people had gathered to talk, from political bulletin boards to ones for music fans. At the conservative political site FreeRepublic, one post demanded that the U.S. revoke the green cards and student visas of all residents of Middle Eastern countries. At Artist Area Bulletin Board, another message held that "there will be peace when that gutter religion, Islam, is wiped from the face of the earth. God help me, but I believe it to be so." The New York City-based techno artist Moby, who had been posting daily diary entries about the crisis for his fan base, broke down after reading the vitriol spewed in his own online community: "I have most likely lost a friend in this tragedy and I can't bear to look at the boards as they are right now," he wrote. "Most of you are wonderful, some of you are incredibly hurtful. I don't know why I do this anymore."

The wars weren't all about xenophobia, either. Even peaceful geek sites such as Slashdot and the blogger community MetaFilter had to deal with the flame wars that erupted between liberals and conservatives, patriots and protesters. An anti-Bush diatribe led posters on MetaFilter to complain: "We get to hear this condescending tone every time a Republican is in charge of decision-making." At Craigslist, a nasty argument erupted when one scribe burst out with: "What do you expect to happen? This is what happens when a country is run by white-bread, greedy yuppies!"

Perhaps it's not surprising that, in a situation so fraught with anger and frustration, the Web community was geared up for a fight. All that rage had to be released somewhere, and surely it's better that people vent online rather than start a brawl on the street. But it also underscores the problem with bulletin boards as a community forum: They are natural breeding grounds for verbal wars. Because public bulletin boards can be populated by as many transients as regulars, they sometimes lack the familiar community coziness of a mailing list. Those who stir up anger may be newbies who stop by for a day or two to bicker; they have no loyalty to the larger community. In addition, bulletin boards are anonymous, making it easy for troublemakers (or "trolls," as they're called) to stir up an argument without taking any personal responsibility for the mess.

Simply witness the nastiness that has been boiling over on the Happy Fun Slander boards at F---edCompany for the past year. It is perhaps the most horrifying cesspool of racism, homophobia, sexism, and bigotry that has ever existed on the Net. After the tragedy, not surprisingly, its boards were again the most violent, racist, and angry - by a long shot - with thousands of unreadable posts. Why? Simply because the board's visitors can vent without any consequences. And one fanatical screed encourages another.

Of course, for every flame war that erupted in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, even more community members were on hand to console mourners and work out the complex tangle of emotional reactions. It was important for Americans to show a united front in the days after the disaster, and for the most part, we did. But just a few steps into the Web's backstreets, the darker side of American discourse is permanently recorded in bulletin boards full of hatred and bickering alongside desperate pleas for peace.