Friday, August 24, 2007

On-line Forums: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Say you have decided to run a marathon. Needless to say, you have an incredible array of events from which to choose, both in the U.S.A. and abroad. Never have there been so many 26.2-milers: flat or hilly, on roads or trails, in big cities or rural outposts, from January through December.

Along with the explosive growth in the number and kinds of marathons, has come a glut of information regarding these events. Volumes have been written on virtually every event, with new information pouring forth each day. This situation contrasts markedly with the “old days” of even as recently as a few years ago, when one’s primary source of information regarding a race came from word of mouth endorsements (or criticisms) from friends or running buddies who had participated in the event, or if you were lucky, a write-up in a magazine.

Of course, as they say in the on-line world, your mileage (or marathon experience as the case may be) may vary. One runner’s opinion may be entirely different from another’s at the same race, depending upon one’s expectations, one’s training, one’s sensitivity to the weather, and of course, how the runner felt on that particular day. Wading through this morass of information can yield nuggets of gold for the persistent, but can also be more trouble than it’s worth.

There is another side of this new, open world of information. That is, do you have the right to publish whatever you want regarding an event? Where does constructive criticism cross the line into destructive, harmful, mean-spirited vitriol? Is it o.k. to exaggerate and even outright lie in order to make your point? It raises the old debate between the constitutional right to free speech versus screaming “fire” in a crowded theater.

At www.marathonguide.com one can log on in seconds and add a comment on a particular marathon, while adding his or her “rating” of the event. These opinions become permanently attached to the record of the event, right alongside the basic information, such as date, time, and course details. These opinions are not only largely unmonitored, they appear in most recent date order. Thus, a particularly aggrieved runner can keep re-posting his or her tirade so it will always appear as the first comment that readers see when clicking on that event’s link. Something seems fundamentally wrong with that, especially when viewed from an event director’s perspective. Other running sites offer similar forums in which runners can sing the praises of a marathon or air their grievances.

As in almost all other areas of life, it comes down to appealing to the reasonable and fair side of those on both side of the race equation, both organizers and runners. Is that really too much to ask?

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