New front for activists: the Blogs

The blogosphere, increasingly, is becoming an important part of our daily news and information diet. These websites condense and present information from news organizations and other sources - typically, they also provide direct links to original stories - and then offer a forum for blog visitors and editors to react to stories and trends.

Locally, one blog that has become a favorite stop for The Reporter is Universal Hub. It is focused on news and opinion about Boston, and its editor, Adam Gaffin, is constantly finding new voices from around Greater Boston who offer interesting and otherwise hard-to-find takes on day-to-day life in this part of the world. He trolls other blogs looking for perspectives that he then shares with his U-Hub readers.

Earlier this month, Gaffin stumbled onto a new blogger who identified himself as "An Israeli in Boston." The anonymous writer talked about settling into a new job and a new home, along with his wife, in the Boston area. Pretty mundane stuff for the most part.

But the blog entry that Universal Hub highlighted was anything but mundane and it ended up creating a firestorm on the website. The newcomer's entry described a visit he made to Mattapan to buy two items of furniture from someone he met on Craigslist.

" Mattapan was quite a scary experience," he wrote. "We were stared at. Na'ama said panicky "take your [yarmulke] off!" It was generally an unpleasant experience. What we did not know at the time, but my colleagues and friends were glad to point out in a 'are you nuts' kind of a way, was that Mattapan is better known by its endearing nickname of 'Murderpan'. You can guess why. One of my colleagues said she's glad we made it."

The blogger's rants went on in this vein for several paragraphs and included this nugget: "I am pretty confident in asserting that at this moment, the only white people in Mattapan were Na'ama, me, and, as it turned out, Arther, a French student who sold us the furniture."

Within a few days, the blog item on Universal Hub had generated scores of comments, most of them excoriating the newcomer for his ignorant and racist assault on a neighborhood - and by extension, a whole city - that he barely knows.

Last week, The Reporter, eager to speak to this fellow in more depth, posted our number and asked for an interview. By this week, the man had yanked down his photo and posted a message on his site indicating that his foray into the world of online commentary may have run its course.

"I recently got caught up in a controversy against my will," he wrote, referring to his exposure on U-Hub. "Parts of my post were taken out of context, and I received many dozens of defamatory comments, some calling me a racist, others urging me to go back home (and yes, some reasonably defended my post). I even got contacted by a reporter, interested in covering this controversy."

He continued, "I am shutting down this blog immediately and removing all previous posts. I may start a password-protected blog. I may turn this into an e-mail newsletter. I may not."

No great tragedy, that. This fellow's entry was not taken out of context. We read it in its entirety and it was nothing more than a collection of outrageous racial stereotypes that said much more about the author than it did about the neighborhood.

This incident shows both the great power and dangers inherent in this growing medium. Those who decide to express themselves on public websites, such as blogspot, had better prepare themselves for a level of scrutiny well beyond their comfort zone. And if they then still choose to malign whole communities - or individuals- with impunity, they had better be prepared to answer for it, whether they hide behind a cloak of anonymity or not.

In our view, this was a useful, learning moment for all involved. It showed the depth of ignorance and fear that is projected onto our neighborhoods, sometimes with great carelessness, by those who don't live here. It also showed that a great many who read this tirade were eager to challenge its excesses and defend our community.

But there's another lesson, too: We who actually live here need to participate more in the day-to-day churn on the blogosphere. To date, voices from neighborhoods like Dorchester and Mattapan- particularly from people of color - are hard to find in this online world. We need to plug in and tell our side of the story. Universal Hub is a good place to start.


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