Eyes on the Street

I used to work near the big Family Court building in Brooklyn. One afternoon, as I was walking by, I saw a woman punch a little boy in the stomach. Presumably, it was her son and he’d made her angry. Maybe she had to go to court and was stressed out. I can’t remember if I said something, but I probably did, because I remember walking away and wondering if I’d made the little boy’s situation even worse by embarrassing his mother. Would she be even harder on him when they got home? Should I have done more or less?

Something that happened online this week made me remember that moment in Brooklyn. Somebody made a comment on a discussion board, claiming that supporting same-sex marriage means you probably aren’t a Christian. The comment wasn’t directed at me, but I thought I should respond and set the record straight. So I found a recent poll that says same-sex marriage is supported by most Catholics and white mainline Protestants. It’s evangelical Christians and black Protestants who are mostly opposed.

So I left my comment and hoped (but doubted) that would be the end of it. When I visited the site again later that night, it wasn’t a big surprise to see that the person I’d responded to had apparently responded to me. I don’t know for sure, since I didn’t read what he or she had to say. I didn’t want to get involved in one of those unpleasant “discussions”.

The next day, the whole thread was gone. Apparently, things had gotten ugly and the moderator had deleted my post and everyone else’s. Which was fine with me. I figured I’d done my bit and it was just as well the moderator had stepped in.

Online forums are like city streets. The moderators (the police) sometimes intervene when things get bad. But the rest of us (the people in the neighborhood or passersby) have a responsibility to keep an eye on things and sometimes get actively involved. It’s an idea called “eyes on the street”. Jane Jacobs wrote about it in her great book The Life and Death of American Cities:

… there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers, to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind…. the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.

Eyes on the street discourage bad behavior and sometimes lead people to speak up (or call the authorities). It’s the same on a discussion board, except for two differences. Nobody on a discussion board is in immediate danger of being robbed or physically assaulted. And the sole purpose of discussion boards, unlike city streets, is to allow people, even strangers, to speak up.

My tendency is to say something when I see a significant factual error. For example, claiming that support for same-sex marriage means a person isn’t a Christian. Of course, not every error (like being mistaken about when a TV show went on the air) needs to be corrected, but some deserve to be, even at the risk of getting into an argument. Preferring to avoid online warfare, I avoid getting personal in my response. I’ll say “X is Y”, but avoid “You are Z” (the third person is less personal than the second person).

And then I’ll usually go away. That means I may miss out on some fruitful discussion, or be corrected myself (unthinkable as that might be!), but reading further responses often leads to more of the same. It seems sufficient to make my point and then disappear, even though this allows someone else to get in the all-important Last Word! Will my silence suggest that I’ve given up? It probably will to some people, but you can’t have everything. And maybe the cops will show up.