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An environment created by antigay postings on Internet blogs that spreads hate, produces fear, and is still protected by free speech.

"Only a stereotypical feces-eating faggot would get this emotional over celebrity gossip," reads comment number 57 under Chris Crocker's emotive "Leave Britney Alone!" YouTube clip. If nothing else, you've got to give the writer credit for fastidiousness. "Feces-eating"? How many hatemongers properly hyphenate? Usually their syntax resembles that of commenter number 83: "You fucking queer ass, go stick a dick up ur ass," or number 12,064: "You truly a retarded dick sucking mindless sheep. get aids and die!" Then there's the particularly miffed number 182,720: "ALL you fucking fags should be killed by terrorist! DIE FAGGOTS!!"

Crocker, the androgynous performance artist who last year parlayed his plea for Britney sympathy into 15 minutes of fame, clearly struck a nerve. Within days of its upload on September 10, "LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!" was bumping Iraq coverage off ABC News' website and spawning dozens of YouTube parodies. Crocker gave interviews from an undisclosed location, claiming he'd received death threats. Ten days after he posted the clip he reportedly signed a deal for his own reality TV show. His video has been gawked at over 15 million times.

But what truly set Crocker's post apart from YouTube's other surreal megahits was the viewer feedback it sparked. As of this writing it has generated over 209,000 comments--the second highest number for any single video in YouTube history--and many comments echo the antigay hostility quoted above. Tens of thousands have logged on solely to voice their opinions on exactly what horrific way Chris Crocker--and, by extension, all gay people--should die: AIDS, terrorism, bludgeoning, a bullet to the head.

You don't need to hop the A train or stroll through Golden Gate Park to hear a crazy bigot ranting about sinners and Jesus these days. Just fire up Internet Explorer and peruse the comments sections on the country's most popular websites, which are aflame with homophobic hate speech so descriptively violent they would shock the members of Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church. Reading through them, you begin to wonder whether this hatred is representative of America. Does the Internet's cloak of anonymity reveal what straights would really like to say to our faces?

"It's called John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory," says Clay Shirky, a journalist and New York University adjunct professor who studies the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. The theory is based on this simple equation: Normal Person + Audience + Anonymity = Fuckwad.

"There's a large crowd," says Shirky, "and you can act out in front of it without paying any personal price to your reputation," which creates conditions most likely to draw out the typical Internet user's worst impulses. The Fuckwad theory is the modern-day equivalent of the dilemma described by the late ecologist Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay "Tragedy of the Commons": How do you manage a communal resource when everyone who uses it has an interest in sustaining it but also the opportunity and the incentive to abuse it?

William Sledd lives in Lexington, Ky., where, he says "it's church, church, church, Wal-Mart, church." Sledd hosts the web series Ask a Gay Man, which started out as a humble homemade YouTube project before being picked up by the Bravo network and given an online perch at With a title like that, naturally, Sledd's posts are magnets for hateful comments. The feedback from his Halloween episode ran the gamut, from an evocative "Someone drop a piano on this fat ugly faggot" to a simple and succinct "I hate gays."

Sledd says the antigay comments on his YouTube posts at first were few and far between, but once his show blew up, "I started getting lots of comments. It happened all at once, and it really bothered me. I was like, I'm just not going to make videos anymore."

Though he says getting gay-bashed on the street--something he's experienced often--can be withering, being bashed in your comments section by dozens of homophobes trying to outdo each other with vitriol causes a unique form of shell shock. The frightening, mob-like, torches-and-pitchforks effect can seem more personal than a random public bashing. Says Sledd: "It really took a toll on me."

While growing popularity can attract more homophobes, it also helps drown them out, says Michael Buckley, host of a Talk Soup-ish web series called What the Buck? "You get 'faggot' all day," he says. "You get, 'I'd like to put a gun to this person's head,' things about Jesus hating gay people, things about being an AIDS chaser. There's tons of hatred. But now that I'm a bit more popular, I get so many more positive comments, and people who write nice things about me write mean things back to [the homophobes], so the hate speech has really slowed down."

Such is the crux of the argument made by free-speech absolutists: Unfiltered comments sections allow debate to flourish, and other commentators will organically shut down homophobes. Call it free-market tolerance. "Comments sections of blogs, like blogs themselves, offer a space where people can challenge stereotypes and push others to exchange ideas rather than slurs," says Marc McCarthy, senior director of communications for GLAAD. Aden Fine, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, an organization that sometimes finds itself in the sticky position of defending hate speech, agrees. "In traditional media like newspapers or TV, if you're offended, you can't voice your opinions very easily," says Fine. "People are now familiar with the Internet, and they know that you have to take everything with a grain of salt. But what makes the Internet a valuable place for people to communicate is that ability to respond and to voice opinions directly and without any cost."

Traditional media outlets are more likely to filter comments on their websites. While YouTube doesn't filter or edit antigay feedback on William Sledd's posts for Ask a Gay Man, Bravo's website does. "YouTube is, and always has been, a forum for free expression," says YouTube spokesperson Kathleen Fitzgerald. "Our community is made up of millions of people across the world and is diverse racially, ethnically, politically, religiously, as well as in terms of sexual orientation." Bravo didn't respond to requests for details about its online policies.

Perhaps surprisingly, both Sledd and Michael Buckley said they wouldn't want their comments filtered, even if YouTube offered. For one thing, YouTube users are able to filter and delete the comments on their posts themselves, and YouTube can terminate the accounts of commentators who receive complaints (though Sledd points out that offenders can set up a new account in minutes). Still, "if you're going to put something out there on a blog or video," says Buckley, "you have to allow people to comment."

Andrew Sullivan, the well-known gay blogger who writes The Daily Dish blog for The Atlantic, is a fierce defender of everyone's right to insult him, homophobes included. "I don't have a comments section, but my e-mail in-tray is often full of antigay abuse," he says. "There should be no attempts to protect gays from bigotry, and no attempts to protect bigots or even gay bloggers from gay hate speech either. Free speech is nonnegotiable."

The First Amendment may be a worthy defense, but it's hard to take seriously the rationale that feedback sections are valuable spaces for earnest debate when most of the comments are drive-by drivel with no follow-up response. Many comments chains read something like this: "I'm gonna kill all you goddamn homos with my truck," followed by "OMG I LOOOOVE THIS VIDEO!!!" and then "Cheap Vi@gra fast delivery, never here her complane about your $ize again!"

"Having unmoderated comments on your blog is like painting a big 'kick me' sign on your backside," says Xeni Jardin, coeditor at the heavily trafficked blog For years BoingBoing let its readers comment with impunity. But the hatred and hostility that began to appear-- much of it directed at Jardin's ambiguous sexual orientation--began to take over. She says, "When it gets so jarring that you don't even want to blog anymore, you need to deal with it."

So BoingBoing hired a moderator who reads many of the comments as they go up, particularly the ones written anonymously, since that's where most of the hate speech occurs. If she decides a comment is too nasty and unconstructive, she "disemvowels" it. "If there's a comment that says 'Xeni is a transgender Lebanese terrorist, and her butt is big,' she can just hit a button, and it removes all the vowels from that comment," says Jardin. "So instead of deleting it, you have a record that some asshole was part of the conversation, but it removes a lot of the emotional impact. It's like they're flinging poo at you--you still let them fling it, but the poo doesn't stick anymore." And it seems to work; when skimming through dozens of comments, "Xn's trnsgndr Lbns trrrst nd hr btt s bg" hardly registers.

"The design of most feedback sections-- a linear annotation with the option to comment anonymously--encourages these kind of drive-by comments," says Shirky. "We've been designing social software for 30 years now, but we're still stuck in this paradigm of the personal computer. The software is often designed to increase the freedom of the individual without regard for what happens to the group." His solution? Indicate that people who post anonymous hatred aren't welcome on the site. "This is analogous to the way anti-Semitism and misogyny and homophobia have decayed in society," he explains, "not as a general, even decay throughout the whole country, but instead you get these pockets of acceptance [for gays] that spread out.

The real question, Shirky adds, is whether "what's going on in the network is making it worse, or just allowing what's already there to be expressed in public?"

Even if the hate speech isn't an entirely accurate barometer of our society's true feelings about gays, it's a reminder to those of us safely nestled in blue-state America. There are, after all, large swaths of the country that remain staunchly ignorant and bigoted. And being able to view this so clearly is both a benefit and drawback of our hyperconnected world.

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