Carried Away by the Internet


I was surprised recently by some of the comments we received on our blog related to a blog entry I wrote about a club owner who filed for bankruptcy. They were comments that led to some inner turmoil about protecting freedom of speech, encouraging people to interact on our site, ensuring that the material on our site is accurate and trying to keep our site professional.

In today's atmosphere of instant access and communication with people anywhere in the world through the Internet, e-mail, instant messaging and television, I shouldn't be surprised that when people find a venue to express their thoughts on a subject about which they are passionate that they sometimes forget themselves and resort to language that they wouldn't use if they were facing a person rather than a computer screen.

I share this story with you because I'm a firm believer that your club should not only have a Web site, but it should also have a blog on which you share news about your facility with your members. In return, your members can comment about a Pilates class they took, the functional training they are doing with their personal trainer, the cleanliness of the locker rooms or other subjects they find pertinent. Blogs are also a way for your members to ask questions of you, your staff and other members. Although the computer can be a more impersonal way to interact with your members than if they asked you the questions or made the comments to you in person, the fact is that you are not always around for them to ask questions, and even if you were, they might not always be comfortable sharing their comments with you in person. In addition, an informative and interactive Web site that includes a blog can carry your club into your members' everyday lives as they get on the site to see, for example, what people thought about the 20th anniversary party at the club the night before or what people are saying about the new cycling class. It's a way to encourage interaction between members as well, perhaps helping people with similar interests find workout buddies or tennis partners.

However, as I found with our blog, sometimes the comments begin to get into shady territory. The comments on our site started with one reference to a club owner and then snowballed into a multitude of comments calling the individual unflattering names. Despite our lawyers' assertions that we were not liable for comments made by others on our blog, I removed all the comments related to that blog entry because they had degraded to name calling, which I found unprofessional and didn't want associated with our publication's blog. At the time, I could not verify the accuracy of the claims, and many of the comments were anonymous, which often calls into question the motives of the commenters. We print stories about lawsuits and criminal activities related to people in our industry, but it is done without name calling and after verification, with our names clearly stamped on the articles.

You may face similar issues on your blog. My suggestion is to have a plan in place for what is and is not acceptable on your blog — and your Web site for that matter. According to our lawyers, Section 230 of a federal statute called the Communications Decency Act provides broad immunity from defamation liability for all publishers and computer users who publish information provided by other computer users. (That is, providers of bulletin boards, chat rooms or forums.) Regardless, you must decide what type of comments go beyond what you find acceptable and have a means to remove those comments should you deem it necessary.

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